April 20, 2009

The Top 5 ... How to manage your online brand

Before I begin, a quick disclaimer:

I do not work for nor have I received any money or other form of compensation from any social networking website or online portal listed in this posting

In my last post, I talked about the importance of managing your online brand, especially because it is increasingly vital to your success in finding employment. If you haven't had a chance to read it, I recommend that you do - it explains why everyone, including students and youth, need to manage their online brand.

Now, it's time for a few tips. I thought I would share with you the steps I have taken to ensure that my online brand truly represents who I am and highlights my professionalism, enthusiasm, and knowledge.

1. Create a professional e-mail address.

I've talked about this before - it is extremely important that you have a professional-sounding e-mail address that you use when applying for a job. No hiring manager wants to get an e-mail from 'coolhotguy24' or 'sweetyoungthang' - not only is it unprofessional, but you'll likely find your application being screened to the spam box.

Instead, use any of the free e-mail providers and make a simple, but professional e-mail address. If you aren't sure what I mean, here are some examples using John M. Smith as a name:

johnsmith@yahoo.com
jsmith@live.com
johnms@gmail.com
jsmith@email.com
jmsmith@mail.com
john_smith@yahoo.com
j_smith@live.com

Ideally, your professional e-mail address should be free of any numbers and special characters - dashes '-', underscores '_', and periods '.' as the exception. Keep this professional e-mail for any business/employment correspondence and keep the cute, creative, and cheeky e-mail address for e-mailing friends and instant messaging.

2. Use social networking websites wisely

It's perfectly fine to have a Myspace, Facebook, Bebo, or Livejournal profile. But make sure you are familiar with the site's privacy settings.

In the help section, search for 'privacy' and see what comes up. Use these settings to your advantage. It doesn't mean you have to block your photos from friends - instead, make sure that any member of the general public cannot browse/access your profile. For example, do not allow Facebook to create a search engine listing for your profile.

Because it is so easy to search for someone, and given the popularity of social networking websites, your profile and its contents will likely appear near the top of the search engine results list. To keep it simple, use the privacy settings to ensure that only friends and family can see your profile.

3. Take down questionable content

This is related to the previous tip. Even if you block your profile using privacy settings, to be 100% sure that your online brand doesn't ruin your chances of landing a job, take down content that's questionable or could make an employer think twice about hiring you.

If you aren't sure what constitutes this type of content, take the content in question and ask yourself if you would hire someone with a photo/video/blog like that online - if no, then take it down!

Of course this is easier said than done. Sure, you can delete those Facebook photos showing you in a compromising situation at last Friday's party, but what if the content doesn't belong to you - say it's a friend's photo. In that case, ask the person to remove the content and explain your reasons for the request (i.e. employment). Hopefully the other person will understand and perhaps they too will become more aware of their own online brand.

And if that doesn't work, then try other ways. For example, with Facebook, you can click 'remove tag'. The photo itself isn't deleted, but it cannot be traced back to you and it will not appear as one of your photos.

4. Create a blog

It might seem ironic that on one hand, I'm telling you to block your profile and take down questionable content, while now I'm suggesting that you create a blog. But if you think about it, it makes sense.

With a blog, you can upload content and highlight the good things you have accomplished and what your strengths are. For example, you could upload a video of you winning a school award and a blog posting and photo of you scoring the winning goal. If an employer comes across such a blog, they will most likely think that you are goal-oriented and able to work effectively in a team. Of course, you haven't actually listed goal- setting and teamwork as your skills, but content showcasing these accomplishments implies it.

And depending on the career you want, you can use it to begin to make a name for yourself. This is obvious for writers, but remember that other professions could benefit as well. For example, if you are interested in pursuing a career in law could create a blog and provide case analysis and interpretation of high-profile cases. Of course, you might have limited legal knowledge, but when you go to apply for law school, you could point the admissions staff to your blog and say that while you aren't a professional lawyer, you follow important legal cases and are informed enough to have an opinion.

5. Create a LinkedIn profile

I admit that I have a Facebook account and a few Blogger accounts, but my favourite social networking website is LinkedIn. Personally, I prefer it over Facebook - I like that it's more professional and while I use Facebook to keep in contact with people I already know, I've met more people on LinkedIn by tapping into my network and those of my friends.

And LinkedIn is a great way to manage your online brand. You can post a nice photo of yourself and your entire resume, along with contact details. You can use their widgets to expand what your profile offers (i.e. a link to your blog, uploaded documents from your portfolio, etc.). Plus, with all the groups you can join, it is very easy to expand your network!

The one thing I like about LinkedIn is that you can set up your profile and decide on a web domain (www.linkedin.com/in/YOURNAME) that can function like a personal website. For example, my profile doubles as my website - and I include it in the signature of all of my e-mails.

Of course, you also need to be aware of LinkedIn's privacy settings and how to use them. But a LinkedIn profile, combined with a blog, is a great way to showcase your skill set without actually having to say that I have skill X, Y, and Z.

So those are my top 5 tips for managing your online brand. Of course it doesn't end there - once you've created a certain brand, it becomes all about monitoring it.

This is especially true as more and more content is digitized and put online. For example, you might find that a friend who took a Polaroid photo of you passed out on a sidewalk 5 years ago has scanned it and uploaded it - and this is something that can easily damage your employment prospects. But given the prevalence of easy-to-use technologies, this is happening more and more.

With that being said, I would make sure that you search your name in a few major search engines at least once a month. See what comes up and if something pops up that you know could hinder your chances at landing a job, spring into action and find out what you can do to minimize/eliminate it.

And let me be clear - I'm not saying that everyone has to be a prude. You are fully entitled to have fun with friends, have online profiles, upload photos, and rant. But the reality is that employers, with access to simple technology, are able to paint a more detailed picture of you before you even step into their office/store for an interview.

And as the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression - and why let a compromising Facebook photo or profanity-laced Livejournal posting ruin that impression forever?

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