Credit for this thought goes out to both Pete Cobban and Kyle Muizelaar.
Your online presence can either be a bane or boon to your professional career – it can make or break you. During your university experience you hear horror stories about students who get rejected from internships or job offerings; the potential employer saw their display picture on Facebook which was them doing an inverse keg-stand while not wearing any pants (which admittedly sounds difficult) and thus withdrew the offer – or didn’t make it in the first place. What the student in question failed to ask was, “what kind of person does my online presence portray me as?” Instead of thinking about the potential pro’s and con’s of tweaking that online presence, most students take the radical approach – they lock down everything. No viewing photos on Facebook, no viewing tweets on Twitter – everything gets classified. The question that needs to be asked: is that really the best approach?
I Thought Your Online Presence Was Dangerous and Could Wait
There are two pieces to the misconception that I originally carried. One, much like the idea of compounding, was that I could start forming an online presence when I was ready – there was no need to do it now. The second was that an online presence would largely just work against you (after all, aren’t employers only looking for disqualifying information?).
Let’s talk about my first misconception. Having an online presence is a strange combination between building a network, and establishing a brand. When it comes to establishing a brand, I would echo the famous marketing adage “it’s better to have people talking about you – good or bad – then saying nothing at all.” If you go out and Google yourself today, what do you get? Is anything on the first 5-10 pages related to you? If not, that might be a bad sign (or you may just have a very popular name) – the world (as determined by Google) doesn’t know you exist.
Like a brand for any product, you can’t establish you personal brand online over night. You need to put in time, share information, and add value before you will get indexed and recorded; the key phrase in that sentence is time. You can’t build an online brand over night: it takes time to get people reading your thoughts, adding LinkedIn connections, and getting new Google indexes – so start the process early!
Also, as the process relates to networking, it’s something you want to start doing as soon as possible. Take LinkedIn as an example: it’s much easier to get 100 connections over four years then it is 3 months, yet the majority of students leave the creation of a LinkedIn profile until they are searching for full time post school employment. How much do you will actually be able to accomplish with the tool when used like that? Just like it would be inappropriate to meet someone, and then ask them for a reference a week later (not to mention insulting), it would be inappropriate to think about reaping the fruits from something like LinkedIn before you put in the effort – these things take time.
On to my second misconception – an online presence, for the most part, was dangerous. I viewed it like playing with dynamite – the safest thing to do was avoid it altogether. I thought most employers checked Facebook, Twitter, and Google purely for reasons to disqualify you – nothing they found could help my cause. The other problem – on the flip side of that argument – was I didn’t see how any of it could help me. Would an employer really care if they saw me tweeting daily, or answering questions on Quora? On that logic, I avoided most social networking platforms like the plague.
I Learned That an Online Presence is a Long Term Activity, and Hugely Beneficial to Your Pitch
Firstly, I learned that having an online presence is a long term activity. Forget the bragging rights goal of getting to 500+ on LinkedIn – that’s not the point. The point is that you will meet excellent people in your college years at conferences, seminars, meetings and activities that you will want to stay in touch with – and having an online presence where they can find you is of the utmost importance. You will be able to stay in touch years after you meet, and that’s the true value. If you don’t have a medium for them to contact you, chances are you will lose their info, and lose the connection.
Beyond people you have met, it is also extremely valuable for assisting people looking for you. Maybe it’s an old friend, a colleague or a recruiter – but if they can’t find you, they can’t reach out to you. By not having an online presence (or a strong one that I can find through Google – especially if you have a common name liked Tom Smith) you are essentially waving those opportunities – people will only look for you for so long before moving on, so make it easy for them!
I also learned the importance of building up a reputation over the long term. Unless your name is Ashton Kutcher, it will be very difficult to get a following day one. What you need to do is start early, provide content and value often, and be persistent – do that and you will be able to build up a strong online reputation over time.
The second thing I learned is that it is perhaps one of the most valuable assets to your sales pitch – be it an internship, summer job or fulltime position, having an online presence can be the factor that tips the scales in your favour. Let’s say you want to work for a film company at some point during your university career. It’s one thing to walk into an interview and blab on about how much you love the film industry – everyone does it, and few people on the other side of the table believe them. It’s a totally different thing to walk it, talk about how much you love the industry, and then point them to your film blog which has hundreds of posts on different movies, reviews, suggestions and insights, and your twitter account, that has a thousand followers and 10,000 tweets on film industry news. If it were me, I would hire that person almost regardless, just because of the individual passion they have displayed. In fact, some business that pride themselves on hiring thought leaders – like Venture Capitalists – ASK you to submit the link to your blog with your application – it’s hard to get out of that one!
The whole idea is that in order for your online presence to assist you, it doesn’t have to be locked down – it just has to be managed. Pay attention to what photos you are tagged in, and what groups you join on Facebook. Make sure you aren’t tweeting about things that 99.9% of people wouldn’t care about anyways (like what you had for breakfast). Blog about something that is of personal interest to you – avoid making a TMZ rip off just because you love to gossip (unless you are pursuing it as a career and it genuinely interests you, then go for it!). If properly managed, you online presence can be one of your most powerful weapons in differentiating yourself from the competition.
If I Could Go Back I Would Start Earlier and Plan Smarter
If I could go back, I would have gotten online a lot earlier. I was a late adopter of LinkedIn, and an even later adopter of Twitter. By getting on these things earlier, even if you marginally use them, you at least get minimal returns (i.e. secure the username – there must be some other disappointed Blair Livingston’s out there on Twitter who can’t have @blairlivingston).
Secondly, I would of used it much more strategically in my job search. Let’s use the example of my pursuit to break into Capital Markets – and more specifically, Sales & Trading. It’s a common occurrence for every student who interviews to share the same story, “oh, I have wanted to be a trader since I was 5, I love stocks so much, all I do is write investment thesis” – it’s an equally common occurrence for everyone interviewing them to disbelieve it.
If I was to go back to that process, I would have started using a blog to my advantage – by blogging a morning note, or similar piece. Just the act of putting something out there removes all doubts. I would have opened a Twitter account and started following the major sources in the markets – CNBC, certain traders, etc. – and then posting the interesting articles/links to my blog. When I walked into an interview, it wouldn’t be a matter of saying “I love stocks” – it would be a matter of pointing out:
“Listen, I love the markets – for the past year and a half I have been blogging daily, posting articles, and sharing my insight and opinion. It’s out there for everyone to see, and you can find it at myblog.com. There might be students that interviewed today with better marks, extracurricular activites or references, but none of them can hold a flame to me on passion and the ability to execute – I did that on my own with no resources and only spare time, with no supervision or management – imagine what I can do here with the resources of this firm, your expertise to guide me, and a full day to apply to it!”
If the person interviewing you can tell which direction is up, there’s a 90% chance you just smoked your competition. I wish I had known how to use an online presence to sell myself like that in an interview when I was in school. The same applies for any industry; the whole idea is just to get out there!
An online presence can be one of the most valuable tools in your belt if you use it properly. Ignore the boogie man tales you hear on campus – those are people that were just irresponsible with their personal online presentation. Also, do it sooner rather than later – these things take time to build up, so the best time to start is now.