Coca-Cola. BMW. Hilton Hotels. Nike.
Every one of those brands is iconic. Just mention the name aloud, and your listener is sure to associate it with a set of indelible attributes and memorable products and services.
So what happens when a potential client or employer searches for you online? For better or worse, they discover your personal brand. In your own career, the attributes that define you are every bit as important as those iconic, world-famous brands, even if you’re not quite as well known.
Personal branding is how we market ourselves to others. If you don't define your own brand, someone else will do it for you—and the results might not be flattering. If your online presence is muddled or inconsistent, you run the risk that a prospect you’re trying to impress fails to take you seriously.
The good news is that you can take control of your online identity and influence the image that people see when they find you online.
Even better, your personal brand is portable. If you change jobs or even switch careers, you don't have to start over from scratch.
So where do you start? For most of us, building a clear, consistent identity on social media networks is the crucial first step. You might be tempted to ignore social media, but doing so is a mistake. That’s where your online identity begins, and you can’t afford to be invisible.
Social media networks are useful in many ways. Here are some highlights of how they can help you build your personal brand:
- Learn who’s talking about you, and engage them in public or private conversations
- Create and nurture relationships with others before you need them
- Find other professionals in your field or in related fields
- Connect with old friends and former business colleagues
- Discover new ideas and insights by joining and reading special interest groups
- Learn more about your competitors by studying how they interact with customers online, and discover where you can gain a competitive edge
Read voraciously, and use your social media profile to share your most interesting, thought-provoking discoveries. Take the time to add an introductory paragraph to every link you share, telling your friends and followers why they should invest their time in reading that article or blog post. Some of the most influential online personalities earned their reputation because of their ability to aggregate great ideas.
And don’t just toot your own horn: What others say about you has far more impact than what you say about yourself. Find people who will promote you even when you aren’t in the same room. If you speak at a professional conference, for example, make sure that your online colleagues and peers know about the presentation so they can help spread the word.
Which social networks should you participate in? That depends on your field and on your personal preferences. Each network has its own set of do’s and don’ts. Here are some guidelines to help you succeed.
If any part of your personal branding quest involves getting hired (now or in the foreseeable future), this should be your first stop.
Your LinkedIn profile is the closest thing you have to an online résumé. It needs to be crafted with extreme care, because it’s the first place many recruiters and potential clients look. Fairly or unfairly, they make immediate judgments about you based on that profile.
Here’s how to approach LinkedIn for best results:
- Your profile should contain no spelling or grammatical errors. Get at least two literate friends or colleagues to proofread it for you.
- Fill out the profile completely. Don’t leave out any experience or details.
- The default headline lists your current (or most recent) job title. You can and should change it manually. Brand yourself for the job you want, not the one you have.
- Your summary should include a brief paragraph summarizing work experience, industry awards, and honors. In the second paragraph, define your career aspirations.
- Make sure your profile is rich with keywords that recruiters and potential clients or customers will use when searching. The higher you rank in a LinkedIn “people search,” the more likely you are to make the short list.
- Check the public/private settings on your profile carefully. Make sure that a LinkedIn member who isn’t already connected to you can still get a good picture of who you are.
Be sure to join LinkedIn groups that match your profession, expertise, and interests.
Not everyone can or should be actively involved in Twitter, but if the format fits your personality and your professional profile, dive right in. You can think of Twitter as a “microblogging” service, where you can share links to interesting content and short insights (140 characters or less) on topics that demonstrate your expertise and professional knowledge.
Here’s how to maximize results from Twitter:
- Write a Twitter bio that describes yourself in 160 characters or less. That’s a tremendously useful exercise, one that can really help you focus on your personal “elevator pitch.” If you can’t describe yourself succinctly, you’ll end up stumbling on the very first question in a job interview or first meeting with a potential client.
- Include a link to your online résumé in the website field of your Twitter profile. (Pro tip: If you crafted a great public LinkedIn profile, use that link.)
- Follow influential people in your industry and engage with them. Not only do you increase the chances you’ll learn useful things, you also increase the likelihood that they’ll follow you back. Identifying Twitter influencers to follow can be done easily with a tool called Traacker.
- Learn how to use hashtags so that you can participate in online discussions that are of interest to other members of your professional community.
- Don’t let your personal and professional lives bleed together inappropriately. If you have a personal Twitter feed, consider setting up a second account for your professional tweets. And remember that your tweets are, by default, public. If your personal account is R-rated, consider making it private.
Of all the big social media services, Facebook offers the most potential professional pitfalls. The biggest problem is that you have little control over how and where your posts are shared. Photos, links, and likes can wind up being forwarded to friends of friends of friends, making them essentially public.
The best advice: Keep your Facebook persona personal, yet professional. Remember that anything you say or do online becomes a public record of your personal brand. And while it might be tempting to click the Like button to get a freebie from a merchant, be conscious that those Likes might appear on your friends’ timeline. If you don’t want to be associated with controversial products, people, issues, or politicians, steer clear.
Don’t be completely gun-shy. Your Facebook profile is a good place to show people that you’re a human being. If you manage it with care, they can see how diverse your interests are and get a sense of your dynamic, “after hours” self.
If you have a business that faces the public, consider creating a Facebook page, separate from your personal account. You can use that page to promote your professional brand and provide contact information even to Facebook members who aren’t your friends.
So far, despite mountains of promotional efforts, Google hasn’t gotten much traction for its flagship social media service. It’s inhabited mostly by people who are professionally involved with Google products and services. If you’ve signed up for any Google service (including Gmail and YouTube) you already have a Google+ account. So go ahead: Look around, and try searching for people and companies that are part of your professional circle. (A disproportionate number of actual rocket scientists and other members of the scientific community, for instance, are active on Google+.)
Even if you don’t find a lot of professionally relevant content on Google+, it’s still worth spending some time to build a profile. You can repurpose the content you created for your LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, paying special attention to keywords that recruiters or potential clients might be searching for. The biggest advantage? Your profile, including your public contact information, shows up on the first page of search results whenever anyone uses the world’s most popular search engine.
These suggestions address the social media powerhouses, but keep in mind that your online brand extends outside of social media. You have ample opportunities to participate in online conversations by finding influential voices in your profession. Comment on blogs and in online groups where you can add insights or ask relevant questions. Be sure to include a link to your website or LinkedIn profile so that others can contact you offline. When you participate on a consistent basis, you build up an online record that helps establish your online brand.
Ed Bott is an award-winning technology journalist, blogger, and Twitter addict (@edbott) responsible for nearly 40,000 tweets. Judy Bott (@judybott)is the creative force behind Tenacious PR. She’s been helping clients from her own public relations agency for nearly 20 years and is available for social media coaching and consulting.