Why Your Avatar Matters

There are more resources available today for building a personal brand than ever before. Anybody can start a blog for free, sign up for social networks, create podcasts and internet TV shows, and be a part of the Big Conversation in hundreds of different ways.

But getting recognized—getting heard— is actually tougher than ever. Although there are so many different avenues, networks, tools, and channels available for creating the unique voice—your personal brand—standing out from the crowd is just that much more difficult.

One way you can stand out, especially on sites like Twitter, is to have a great avatar. A great avatar will help people remember you instantly. And you should use it everywhere, across the board. Use it on your blog if you have one (you should). Use it on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, everywhere. Even if people don’t automatically remember your name or your website, they’ll remember your avatar and make an association. When they see it again later, on another network or site, they’ll be more likely to pay attention, to friend you, and maybe remove a few of those degrees of separation.

It’s About The Face

It’s been proven that human beings (and crows) are wired to recognize and remember faces, and it starts in infancy. And even though you might not be good at remembering people’s names, you always remember their face. Even if you haven’t seen somebody in 10, 20, or 30 years, and despite the affects of time, you’ll almost always recognize them when you meet them again.

So it only makes sense that if your goal is to have people recognize you, you’ll want them to see your face.

Use It Everywhere

My current avatar was created by Kevin Cornell, an incredible illustrator, as a part of the work I did for the A List Apart magazine. Before I had it, I used a picture of myself that I took by setting the timer on a camera I’d placed on a shelf in front of me. But the new avatar is much better. It’s an awesome drawing and looks pretty much exactly like me. If you’d only seen my avatar and hadn’t met me in person and I walked into the room, you’d know instantly it was me.

I use my avatar everywhere, here on Hivelogic, and also for every social network I belong to. I use it in Flickr, as my buddy icon in iChat, in Facebook, and even in my Google groups account. This kind of consistency creates familiarity.

Great Avatars

So what exactly makes a great avatar?

I think the most successful avatars are the ones that help people connect with you (and your brand) on a personal level.

Take a look at a few of the avatars of some of the most followed people on Twitter:


In order: Shaq, Evan Williams, Robert Scoble, Leo Laporte, Michael Arrington.

It’s no coincidence that the most successful Twitterers often use their own likeness (a photo, sketch, or caricature) as their avatar. They do that so that people will recognize and remember them. In the case of somebody like Wil Wheaton, many people already know what he looks like, and his avatar is a fun, likable caricature. Shaq just uses a picture of himself.

It’s worth pointing out that the people on Twitter with the most followers are the ones who could probably get away with having a meaningless, impersonal avatar, but generally speaking, they have the most personal avatars around.

Now take a look at these avatars, from a few of the people in my list (some of whom might fit in the “tons of followers” category as well):


In order: DHH, John Gruber, James Duncan Davidson, Jina Bolton, Dan Cederholm.

These are some examples of avatars that work, the ones that make me feel like I know who I’m talking to. I think that it’s especially important for people who aren’t already famous public figures, celebrities to use an accurate representation of who they are.

Dan Cederholm, who was in my list above, has a well known brand with a great logo. He could have used that logo in Twitter. He also could have used a photo of himself. Instead, he’s using the illustration Kevin Cornell did for him. But look at it. It’s fun, it has personality, and if you’ve ever met Dan or seen him talk, you know that the avatar captures something about him that even a picture might miss.

My friend and The Talk Show co-host John Gruber of Daring Fireball, also pictured above, could have used his website’s logo, but instead he’s using a picture of himself. Clearly his Daring Fireball brand is well known, but by using his own picture, he’s saying this is me talking. When I go to Daring Fireball, I’m getting Mr. Gruber’s take on Mac nerdery. But on Twitter, I feel like I’m talking directly to John the person.

Have a Business? Make a Separate Account

Even if you’re trying to promote your own small business, you should still use your own face instead of your logo for your own personal twitter. When you show up to SXSW or a local meet-up, people won’t be looking for you, they’ll be looking for your company’s logo, and you’ll have to do that much more explaining. Your potential clients might use the same social apps you use too, and if they do, they’ll probably follow you (which opens up a whole other can of worms, doesn’t it?).

If you really want to get your logo or company brand out there, create a unique Twitter account for it, and keep them separate. Tweet about personal stuff with your friends on one, and business-related subjects on your company account, which should sport your awesome company logo.

Great avatars actively tell us something about you.

Great Avatars Are Cheap

A great avatar doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. In fact, it only takes about 10 seconds to create a good one, and it won’t cost you anything. If your computer has a built in camera, just snap a picture of yourself (on the Mac, many of us have built-in iSight cameras and software like PhotoBooth). If you want to get a little bit more creative, grab a point-and-shoot or dSLR camera, put it on your shelf, set the timer, and smile. Crop the photo (using something like Preview) so we can see your face (or at least part of it if you want to get all artsy) and resize it to 128×128 pixels (most sites will do a good job of resizing it to the scale they need). That’s it, you’re done.

Check out the jumble of avatars Twitter shows you in the sidebar when you’re on the site:

Picture 12

Some of those little bitty icons are instantly recognizable to me as actual humans. The rest force me to think or try and remember who they are. There are some cool logos in there, sure, but are they people or companies? It can be easy to forget.

Consider how cool would it be to show up at a conference, at a gathering, or even on the street, and have them say “Oh yeah, I recognize you from your Twitter avatar!”

A Word About “Bad” Avatars

I’ve intentionally not pictured, linked, or otherwise mentioned any specific avatars that I don’t think work well. Instead, allow me to offer some tips about things to avoid if you want an avatar that really speaks to your friends and followers:

  1. Don’t use those Flash-generated Japanimation style avatars. You know the ones I’m talking about. They all look too similar, which means they’re not unique enough to distinguish you from the rest of the millions of people who are also using them. Yes, I get that you can customize them, but they’re still too much like all the rest, and in the end, a simple photo of yourself is even more unique.
  2. Don’t use inanimate objects or pets. Unless you’re joking, marketing a product, or psychically channeling your hamster.
  3. Don’t use a generic avatar. The worst thing you can do is not customize your avatar, and use the generic avatar provided by the social network. A grainy, blurry photo of your dog is better than that.

Of course these are just guidelines.

Special Cases and Exceptions

I probably could have gotten away with using the Hivelogic logo from my site as my avatar. My cat is pretty cute, so I could use a picture of him. I think I was a cute kid, so I could use a picture of myself at age 4. But using a current photo or caricature of myself communicates far more about who I really am, today, than any of those other options.

That said, if you already have a very strong brand and association— and I don’t mean if you think you have one, I mean if people stop you on the street to tell you that you do, which is very rare—then it’s probably just fine to use it.

One example of this is Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror fame. Atwood’s blog is very well read, and he’s a good success. Part of his success is the existing association between his writing and his pre-existing avatar (which I assume isn’t actually what he looks like). So if your brand is already established, then of course you should use it because at that point, people may already expect to see you reference it.

Another example would be Jason Calacanis. He’s using a picture of some bulldogs as his avatar. I have no idea what Calacanis looks like in real life. But as I’ve mentioned, he has about 60,000 followers, so there you go.

Lastly, if your intent is to hide your identity, or to create a make-believe personality or facade, then these rules probably don’t apply to you.

Be Real

If the point is getting your voice out there, being heard, being recognized, and creating a brand for yourself, you want to make it personal. You want to make it yours. So don’t hide behind a squiggle, swoosh, or a picture of your dog. You can be more real than that.

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