Online branding may be the most important marketing concept that you never think about. Granted, you may spend your brainpower thinking about online marketing and how you can generate more leads, but online branding is the Cinderella of the digital world.

So what exactly is online branding and why should you care?

Online Branding Defined

Simply put, online branding is the process of developing and promoting your firm’s brand online. Easy enough to understand the basic concept.

It generally involves two basic activities. The first of these is making sure that your firm’s brand identity and positioning is accurately represented online. Does your You Tube channel reflect your identity? Are your various company profiles all consistent and up to date? And, of course the big one, does your website accurately reflect your brand?

The second activity is using online tools and channels to build your brand. Almost every firm is engaged in some activities that either directly or indirectly do this. Whether it’s Social Media, SEO, or their website itself, professionals are increasingly looking online for cost effective ways to boost their firm’s profile.

Why Should You Care?

This one is actually pretty easy. Let’s start with your professional services brand. As I have blogged about before, your firm’s brand can be thought of as your reputation times your visibility. The greater these factors, the stronger your brand:

Reputation x Visibility= Brand Strength

So what is the first thing you do to check out a potential new vendor or business partner? Visit their website? Google them? Read their LinkedIn profile?

Your online presence is arguably the single most important factor shaping people’s impression of your firm’s reputation and boosting it’s visibility. Gone are the days when you can safely ignore your online presence and rely on networking and referrals. These referrals are checking you out online. And if your online brand is tarnished, dated or missing you are losing business. And you probably don’t even realize it. If you have ever had someone say that they referred someone to you and you never heard a word, you may be experiencing the consequences.

Where Should You Start?

1. Make sure your overall brand strategy is right
If you have a flawed brand that is out of date and no longer reflects who your firm is today, let alone where you want to be tomorrow, no amount of online branding will fix it. You have to get that right first. A weak offline brand is a weak online brand as well.

2. Strive for consistency
Try to make your online branding consistent with offline branding efforts. Obviously this involves not only design elements such as logo and color palette, but also the words used to describe your firm. It goes even further to encompass how you talk about what you do. Unfortunately, it’s all too common to see firms present very different brand personalities in online and offline venues.

3. Know where your target audience lives online
If you think your target audience doesn’t go online, grab yourself by the lapels and shake vigorously. Welcome to this century. You may not know where they hang out, but in all likelihood they network online, just not with you. Find out. Ask them. Search for LinkedIn groups, industry forums and blogs that deal with issues your prospective clients care about.

4. Make yourself useful
Become a part of the online community by participating in the discussion, offering valuable resources and cultivating online relationships the same way you would in offline situations. This should help you establish the appropriate reputation that reflects your brand.

5. Increase your visibility.
This is an ongoing effort that can involve a wide range of tools and techniques. Social media in all its richness and variety can have a role. The same goes for content marketing, search engine optimization or even paid advertising. Your firm’s marketing plan should take online branding every bit as seriously as you do networking and industry trade shows. These are serious marketing and branding activities that require budgets, plans and dedicated effort. You should expect them to produce results.

If you are looking for more resources on the overall branding process and how it might apply to your online presence, you may want to check out Hinge’s Rebranding Kit. For more info on balancing your traditional and digital marketing presence this post may be helpful. Finally, you can get more insight into growth oriented strategies in our new book on high growth, high value professional service firms. It’s called Spiraling Up and is available as a free download.