by Tim Sweeney
Lessons in Brand Building and Storytelling from a Marine Corps Veteran
Building a personal brand and learning to tell stories is not easy. Marine Corps veteran Dan Evans taught himself to do both. The lessons he learned along the way might help your brand—even if that brand is YOU.
While serving as a social media director for the US Marines for the last few years, Dan Evans also had an eye toward the future. He had joined the Marine Reserves in 2003 as an infantry rifleman and in 2005 was asked to work as a recruiter. He took the leap and was augmented to active duty, serving in various escalating recruiting roles until transitioning to civilian life in late 2016 so he could spend more time with his family. Today, Evans lives in Texas with his wife Stephanie and their three young children—Brooke, Brighton, and Boston—and he recently accepted a position as Director of Social Business Strategy for USAA Bank. “Oddly enough, what I was doing in the Marines was social business, weaving social media into culture for employees as well as customers,” he says. “This role is exactly what I’ve been doing, and I have an opportunity to grow and be challenged in a similar line of work.”
As a Marine, Evans saw the importance of establishing a personal brand firsthand when some of his peers struggled to transition professionally to civilian life. “It wasn’t that they didn’t have relevant experience,” he says. “They didn’t have the street cred of showing what they’d done.” To avoid experiencing the same fate, he bought a domain name (danevansonline.com) and started to create content. He also recognized, “If I wasn’t Google-able, I was nobody,” and he set about becoming just that. His brand awareness increased greatly when he wrote an article about how the Marines used 21st-century media for recruiting. The article was a hit online and on LinkedIn, which led to a podcast and speaking engagements. To tie his growing content together, Evans hired a web designer to help improve his “horribly ugly” website.
“At first, I was just talking about my social media work, and then I realized I was on to something,” Evans says. On his final day of active duty in October 2016, Evans posted a photo with his family on LinkedIn, saying he was transitioning to civilian life and looking for his next opportunity, and thanked his supporters and mentors. The post was shared 250 times and received more than 23,000 Likes and 3,000 comments. It also drove people to his website and LinkedIn profile.
He had done the legwork up front, starting his podcast, getting recommendations on LinkedIn, and producing quality content that made people willing to vouch for him. “You are saying and doing all of these things, but how do you prove it?” he asks, rhetorically. “By using online tools such as blogs and podcasts. Showing, not telling, that you have the skills to do these things. I proved that I know how to do online marketing by doing it not just for the Marines, but also for my own brand, earning trust with professionals outside of the military.”
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Evans learned many of these skills while recruiting for the Marines. Early in his career, he worked in Provo, Utah, a notoriously difficult place for the Marines to recruit. He and other recruiters found themselves visiting high schools with only the phone numbers of potential recruits, which were becoming increasingly useless. “We built a Facebook business Page and took a couple photos of new Marines that had come back from boot camp,” Evans explains, “and I saw an opportunity to start a recruiting conversation around that.”
Soon, Evans was training recruiters on presentation and consultative selling skills. Along the way, he noticed that a number of them were using social media, just not to its full potential. He saw an opportunity to use social media to tell each recruit’s story and to use that as a catalyst to start a recruiting conversation. “I built and implemented training for recruiters to move these conversations from online to offline and turn them into recruiting business,” Evans explains. “It was also an opportunity to showcase the young men and women who made the decision to serve, share these stories with their spheres of influence, and garner support for their decision to serve.”
In 2013, Evans was offered the chance to run the recruiting efforts for the Western U.S. region, and he and his family were off to San Diego. Recognizing that it was important to tie metrics to the social media efforts he had implemented previously, and knowing that the most feasible way to do so was to create clarity around where posts were to be published, his team created Facebook Pages for each of their 180 recruiting sites in the Western region, each with three to seven recruiters creating meaningful content around the local citizens who had chosen the Marine Corps. “It was one way we could associate the brand message with local people and make an impression we couldn’t from a national standpoint,” Evans says.
Storytelling played a large part in the training he administered. He urged recruiters to think like a skilled marketer by asking, “What is the story?” Small things, such as posting a Facebook photo of a new recruit who was heading off to boot camp (and tagging that individual), could lead to more conversations. “The fact is, many of them weren’t telling people about their decision to join,” he says. The swearing-in photo became a way to activate the sphere of influence around that individual by drawing a relevant customer base, because people who click the Like button are more interested in joining. “It creates conversation that otherwise wouldn’t have been had,” Evans says.
He also empowered recruiters to publish on media channels owned by the Marine Corps, on behalf of the Marines brand, which took some getting used to by leadership who were concerned over what recruiters were posting and felt communications should be vetted through PR. “That wasn’t realistic,” he explains. “Most recruiters had been using social media for recruiting, but they were doing it solely from personal profiles.” Even now, Evans looks at brands and sees a missed opportunity to leverage employees and customers in their marketing. Most, he believes, are afraid of letting employees create content around what they do, despite the reality that they are already talking about the brand. “We saw it with our recruiters and thought, ‘Let’s train them and show them how to do it,’” he says. “As long as there are systems and training in place for people to post on behalf of the brand, I’d say to put it on an owned media channel, where it can be tracked and you can see the effectiveness. People trust human-to-human interaction; they don’t necessarily trust brands.”
“In one three-month stretch, we had 600 recruiters generate 2,800 posts, which generated 50 million impressions on Facebook,” Evans adds. “If you do that on a Facebook business Page, it’s really hard to get that kind of reach. By setting up lists and adjusting your privacy settings on Facebook, you have a lot of power over who can see your stuff. The secret to that organic reach is to make it personal, like being able to tag individuals on a business Page. For us, using ambassadors was a great way to contact like-minded talent.”
Creating these personal and local stories led to conversations and, ultimately, advocacy and trust. Recruiters were then taught to monitor these advocates and conversations and take them offline through a phone call or by reaching out via a mutual connection for an introduction. “The people we are bringing in today are smarter and know exactly what they are getting into,” Evans says. “Social media has helped us create transparency like never before, so I believe this helps us bring in the right types of people.”
A major lesson Evans learned from this, and something he later used to build his own personal brand, was that having a great product and advertising on big media channels doesn’t mean a thing if your online personality doesn’t match who you are offline when you reach out to someone. “My point to recruiters was that when people sign up, they are buying you. They see something in you that they like,” he says. “I don’t think there is any secret—you repel the people who don’t want to be like you and attract the ones who do. Being your authentic self is important. Being honest and transparent sells more than anything else.”
Evans would later apply the same lessons he taught to recruiters when he launched his own personal brand, understanding that if people felt comfortable when they viewed his profile, they’d feel comfortable reaching out with other opportunities. His podcast—interviews with military veterans who took the leap into entrepreneurship—is a prime example. When he realized it could be difficult to get interviewees on the phone for a conversation, Evans created a product that would help build his guest’s brand and name through the interviews they’d do with him. “I created value for the mentor to potentially help other veterans who listened to our interview, and I gave them a venue to promote their product or service as well,” he explains. “Not to mention building a great relationship with them, too!”