You've heard the horror stories: a job applicant gets turned down because his potential employer discovered his objectionable tweets, or saw pictures of his keg party on Facebook. There is a lot of advice out there about keeping your online activity from hurting your career. But there's a flip side. When handled correctly, social media can help you professionally. You can use it to enhance your personal brand, establish yourself as an expert in a field, or demonstrate fluency with all things digital. The key is to be proactive about managing your activity and image.
What the Experts Say
It used to be that people were deemed to be experts based on their titles, years of experience, or length of their CVs. While those things are still important, especially in some circles, they're no longer the only ways to show credibility. "Status is much more democratic now. Expertise can be noticed more easily," says Soumitra Dutta, a professor in business and technology at INSEAD, author of "What's Your Personal Social Media Strategy?" and coauthor of Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World. Social media allows anyone to put their ideas out there and to gain respect, notoriety, and a following. "The opportunity to reach people directly is powerful, and still underexploited," says Dorie Clark, a strategy consultant and author of the forthcoming book What's Next?: The Art of Reinventing Your Personal Brand (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). To make the most of social media to further your career, you need to make a conscious choice to use it for professional purposes, understand what your goals are, and then actively manage your digital footprint.
Put your professional self online
Most people have dipped their toes into some form of social media. If you're already out there, it makes sense to think about how professional contacts, especially potential employers and current colleagues, will see you. "More and more we have to realize that there is no such thing as private space online," says Clark. Dutta concurs: "Privacy today is something you have to work hard at. You have to assume your actions are public by default."
Commit to using social media for more than personal reasons. This doesn't mean you have to start a whole new online persona. Some people are comfortable with the blurring of the professional and personal boundaries. Others find it difficult. Decide which social media channels you'll use for what purposes. For example, Clark makes this distinction: She uses Twitter and LinkedIn for professional reasons and does her personal interacting on Facebook. Dutta says it's a personal choice that each person needs to make. The key is to think about what people will see when they look you up in each space.
How it works
When it comes to advancing your career, there are three things social media is particularly suited for:
- Building your personal brand. "It gives you a great opportunity to brand yourself, especially to internal colleagues and external peers," says Dutta. When people peruse your social media activity, they get a sense of what you're about. The more you comment on or write about a certain area, the more likely you'll be affiliated with it. Clark points out that social media has an "echo chamber effect" in which even a small amount of content can go a long way toward establishing you as an expert. It is a medium that doesn't require credentials to prove your credibility. Dutta says that if you are passionate about a topic and argue your perspective in a compelling manner, you can begin to generate a following. Even if you aren't trying to be labeled as an expert, contribute to discussions you find interesting, are related to your industry, or you simply want to be part of. "Social media can be a way to demonstrate your familiarity with a field," says Clark. "If you blog or tweet about a topic it shows that you're in the game."
- Demonstrating your proficiency with all things digital. "It shows you're up on digital trends, which are affecting every company," says Clark. Employers are increasingly looking for this competency in potential employees. She also points out that this may be especially important for baby boomers: "If you're over 50, companies are worried that you won't be able to use social media and other digital tools."
- Learning from your digital network. By design, social media is a conversation. When you post information, people like, comment on, or forward your thoughts. This means that not only can you put ideas out there but you can learn a lot as well. "You have to be open to a two-way dialogue and hearing other people's points of view," says Dutta. Becoming part of an online community is a great way to identify and follow trends in your areas of interest. You can also turn to your network with specific questions about your field or even a job search.
How to start
Once you've committed to using social media for professional purposes, it is easy to get started. Here are three things to do:
- Figure out what space you want to play in. Before you join the conversation, think about what topics you want to be associated with. "You need to ask yourself, what you want to be known for? What are you passionate about? What are your distinctive views?" says Dutta. Find the forums where other thought leaders are talking about that topic. While it is more manageable to focus on a particular subject or two, you can also dabble. "You can work hard to showcase you're an expert in a certain area but participate in other conversations too," says Clark. For example, if you're in sales, you are likely to have a depth of knowledge in that area, but you can also show that you know something about marketing or finance.
- Establish a presence. Give people something to see when they look for you online. One of the easiest ways to do that is to set up a LinkedIn profile. Make sure it is robust: fill out the experience and specialties fields. Provide links to your other social media activity. Then, consider setting up a Twitter account if you don't already have one. Clark suggests that you commit to posting to it once a day, even if it's just a retweet.
- Generate content. To truly establish yourself as an expert, you need to create a following. Create content that people want to share. "If you want to drive home that you have expertise, post articles that show, don't tell, you have expertise," says Clark. If people find your opinions and perspective interesting, they will do a lot of the work for you. Clark says the goal is to build an army of ambassadors who pass on your content to others. "You lose credibility with people if you show you're blowing your own horn. You need other people to blow the horn for you."
Play by the rules
While social media has very few rules, most companies do. Before you begin tweeting about your work or start a blog showcasing your expertise, be sure to know your company's policy on social media. "You may not be able to talk about certain industries or what you do for the company," says Clark. Adds Dutta: "When you're part of an organization, you are already ascribing to rules and values. In the online space, it's important you don't violate that,". If you are banned from mentioning your job or company, you can still accomplish the goal of demonstrating proficiency in social media by blogging about other things you care about, such as baseball or cooking. While not strictly professional, it might just cause a boss or recruiter to take notice?
Principles to remember
- Consider what potential employers or colleagues will see when they find you on social media — you don't want them to see nothing
- Decide which social media channels you'll use for professional purposes — it's ok to mix personal and professional
- Create content that others can forward, retweet, or repost
- Say you're an expert — show it by posting compelling content
- Limit your social media activity to one topic — participate in many conversations so you don't get pigeonholed
- Inadvertently violate company policy — check what rules your employer has set around social media
Case study #1: What boundaries?
Dany Bourjolly Smith, the director of human capital management at Ross Technologies, an IT solutions firm based in Baltimore, first started using social media back in 2006. She had a basic LinkedIn profile but rarely posted any content related to her work. In 2007, while she was a recruiter at another firm, she needed to hit an ambitious hiring goal within six weeks. To succeed, she thought, "I have to fire every engine I can think of." So she turned to social media to find candidates and was able to fill the positions within the deadline. Many recruiters use social media to find job seekers and build a pipeline of candidates but for Dany it's more than a tool to do her job. "It is an opportunity to brand myself as an effective talent acquisition professional," she says.
She is an avid user of Facebook, where she has over 1,700 friends, and her status updates are often a mix of personal and professional. Originally she used the updates to share many of the humorous things she saw and experienced reading thousands of resumes and interviewing hundreds of candidates. Her network responded well, asking questions and requesting more. She realized that inherent in those entertaining posts was valuable advice. She now prefaces some of her posts with "Recruiting Tip:" and offers tactics, strategies and guidance for people in her network who might be looking for a job. Dany sees her activity on Facebook as a way to further her personal brand, which she summarizes as "I connect people". "Without social media, I might not have established myself as a thought leader," she says. She may also not have gotten as far in her career. Her current employer, the founder of Ross Technologies, saw what she was doing on Facebook and recruited her. He gave her an offer she couldn't refuse and the opportunity to run her own division.
Case study #2: Social media as a reference check
As the owner and managing partner of Avakian Consulting, Joel Gagne helps school districts and municipalities communicate with the public. It is important that potential clients see Joel as adept with various forms of social media. Therefore, he regularly publishes content that shows his familiarity with the medium as well as his expertise in communications and marketing in the public sector. "It's about putting myself and the company in a position of being an expert," says Joel. While he rarely attracts new clients through social media (most of his work comes through referrals), it elevates his profile with potential clients who seek him out. "It becomes an extension of our credentials," he says. Joel sees his social media strategy as a three-legged stool, with the blog being the center and Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as each of the legs. In each of these spaces, he posts content about communicating effectively with public constituents. Joel says that his social media presence often serves as a reference check. Prospective customers learn more about what Joel does and they get a taste of what it's like to work with him. "Potential clients get a better understanding about my business and whether there's a fit," he says. Clients are checking that he has a distinct perspective on or experience with the issues they care about.