Face it: Employers, both current and future, look you up online. And not just your LinkedIn profile—most of them will also click any public social network links that are floating around. But don’t panic. With a little effort, you can polish your profiles so your personality shines through and makes you a more attractive candidate to recruiters. Here are five tips for leveraging your social networks to give your career a competitive edge.
1. Keep it professional
It should go without saying that if you have a penchant for posting sexy selfies, risqué party pics, and curse-filled tirades, you should lock down public access to your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles. Although the question of whether your boss can fire you because of something you posted on your own time is up for debate, you don’t want that photo of you at the business end of a beer bong to be the first thing that pops up when a potential employer Googles your name.
But making sure your profile is “professional” is about more than scrubbing NSFW content. If your networks are family-friendly but also family-only, you may want to keep them private rather than public. “Using non-professional social media in a professional setting can be tricky,” says Matt Brosseau, director of technology and recruiting at IT strategy and consulting company Instant Technology. “Twitter and Facebook are meant less for establishing yourself as a professional and more for facilitating conversation.”
2. Engage with others
Having thousands of Twitter followers is one thing, having significant influence over them is another. Are you an interesting, engaging online persona, or are you just collecting followers? Employers can check this—sites like Twitter Audit and Klout reveal if your followers are real and whether you’re an engager or just a broadcaster. It’s better to have a small, involved following than it is to have an ego-boosting number on your page.
“Personally, I don’t check candidates’ Klout scores,” says Tracey Russell, a recruiter at sales and marketing recruiting firm Naviga Business Services. “But I will pay attention if someone is active and engaging on Twitter.” According to Russell, who frequently sources “passive” candidates (people who are not actively looking for jobs), engagement on social media shows you’re passionate, you understand technology and social media, and you’re able to work with and talk to other people.
3. Show off your interests
There are hundreds of other candidates with your same level of education, work experience, and job-related skills. Demonstrating that you’re interested in a variety of things—not just being a punctual, detail-oriented team player—makes you stand out from the horde and helps employers make a deeper connection with you.
One social network, Career Sushi, is designed to bring your personal interests to the fore, but you can also showcase them with your existing Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. Unless your passion is partying, you shouldn’t hesitate to post status updates and photos that display what you love doing in your free time. “Instagram photos that show varied interests, such as cooking, attending sporting events, and traveling show that you’re well-rounded and that you can balance work and life,” says social media and marketing consultant Jessica Hall.
4. Treat it like email
Social networks, especially Twitter, are inherently casual. But as a general rule, you should keep your tweets and status updates free of grammar and spelling mistakes, excessive emoticons, and gratuitous netspeak. This is especially important if you’re in, or looking for, a client-facing position—employers see your social media as a snapshot of how you relate to the public.
“I’m not sure what it is, but there seems to be something about social media that causes people to end every sentence with a smiley face or exclamation mark,” Hall says. “If I see someone that does this a lot, I run for the hills. They could be a highly intelligent person, but they elicit the image of a vapid sorority girl who says ‘like’ in between every other word. It’s hard not to imagine them sending professional emails in the exact same manner.”
Hall suggests treating social media like you would email: Only add emoticons and exclamation marks if they’ll convey tone or add context.
5. Brand yourself
The nice thing about social media is it only shows what you want it to show, so you can easily create a cultivated online image with a few well-placed status updates.
“If you Instagram photos of yourself at restaurant openings, or showing off new brands or hobbies or trips to off-the-beaten-path locales, you look like someone who’s an early adopter and who’s willing to try new things,” Hall says.
You can also leverage social media to ameliorate shortcomings you might have when it comes to first impressions. For example, if you look younger, using more refined speech in your status updates can convey experience and seriousness. Alternatively, if you’re older in an industry that values youth, you can use social media to show people you’re up-to-date with current trends and young at heart.
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