Most job hunters know that social media sites are essential to successful career-building. You can use them to network, find job opportunities and let recruiters check out your credentials. Your profile telegraphs your skills and qualifications as well as your personality -- and it can help you clinch an offer.
Even if you're happy in your current job, you can use virtual networking to help you do it better by keeping current in your industry and showing that you're on top of your game. That can be particularly valuable for older workers, who -- fairly or unfairly -- may be perceived as behind the times, says Diane Crompton, coauthor of Find a Job Through Social Networking: Use LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and More to Advance Your Career. If you manage your online image well, you'll have an edge when recruiters come calling.
Social networking can give any career a boost, but those in the communications and information-technology fields may benefit the most, because proficiency in social networking serves as a testament to their job skills. And people who work in sales and business development may find fertile ground for attracting customers.
Build your brand. Before you create your profiles or give the ones you have a face-lift, think about how you want to present yourself. Who is your target audience? What do you realistically hope to accomplish? "Unless you know what you're selling, you don't know what you should be conveying," Crompton says.
Sum up your best features and send a clear and concise message. Be consistent across platforms. Post the same photograph -- a professional-looking, flattering head shot -- on each profile, use a uniform summary of your career experience, and keep a consistent tone throughout your online narrative, says Allison Nawoj, a career adviser at CareerBuilder.com.
Make it easy for someone to follow your trail from one site to another by, say, including links to your LinkedIn and Twitter accounts on your Facebook profile. At www.namechk.com, enter the user name you'd like to use and the tool will scan more than 160 social networking sites to see whether your choice is available on each one.
And make sure you know what information about you is lurking on the Web. One of the quickest ways employers -- present or future -- can get the scoop on you is to type your' name into a search engine or sites such as Pipl.com and Spokeo.com, which scour the Web to compile information. Enter your e-mail address into Spokeo's search engine, for example, and it will scan a host of sites -- social networks, dating services, retailers, photo-sharing sites -- for photos, videos, blog posts and anything else it can pull up. To keep tabs on new items popping up about you online, go to Google.com/alerts and enter your name as the search query. Google will e-mail you when relevant information involving your name shows up. Much of the data that comes up on these sites -- your address, phone number, age and so on -- is harmless in terms of your career prospects. But other content may have the potential to tarnish your image.
Fortunately, most people won't look past the first few pages of results in a search. If something negative about you shows up, your best bet may be to push down the bad by adding to the good. Create new content, such as developing your own Web site, or use your expertise to comment on Web message boards. Or, for a fee (starting at $129 annually for the basic package), Reputation.com will help you control and enhance your visibility online.
Get LinkedIn. If you're not already on Linked-In, get moving. The site has more than 100 million members worldwide who have logged on to create profiles. LinkedIn deals only with professional networking, and you can summarize your skills and job history, connect to people you know and promote your work.
Pepper your descriptions with key words relevant to your skills and industry so that you'll show up in search results, and upload your resume. You can also use apps to add content that will beef up your profile. With Box.net, for example, you could add a PowerPoint presentation, and Company Buzz notifies you when your company is mentioned on Twitter.
Crompton suggests updating your LinkedIn "status" at least once a week by sharing interesting, thought-provoking information.
And if you have a Twitter account (see step 4), you can link the feeds so that whenever you publish a status update on one, the message appears on the other as well. To gain credibility as an expert -- and maybe make your employer look good, too -- join groups on Linked-In that are relevant to your field and interests, and answer questions that people post in those groups. Ask for recommendations from colleagues and others who have worked with you -- such references could help set you apart from people with similar qualifications.
Polish your Facebook page. If you have your own business or want to create a profile to promote relationships that are solely professional, create a separate Facebook page. You can use many of the same features that appear on a standard profile, including an area for description, photo albums and status updates. Anyone who is interested in your business or area of expertise can connect to, or "like," your page. To build your following, share your page with your personal Facebook connections and business contacts you meet in person. But ease in. Overtly and repeatedly selling yourself may not be effective on Facebook, where even professional relationships tend to be somewhat casual. If your company has a Facebook page, work with its manager, who might be able to help you tap into its following by mentioning you on its page.
Making your personal Facebook profile shine may involve vigilantly scrubbing away any dirt. Stay on guard for inappropriate comments, photos or other material your friends post on your "wall" (and keep in mind it's possible that spammers have hijacked their accounts).
Don't badmouth your company or any of your colleagues, past or present. Explore the privacy settings in the Account section; you can share as much or as little information as you wish with people who aren't connected to you, and you can block portions of your profile from anyone you choose.
Tune in to Twitter. If you'd rather stay up-to-date in your field without posting tweets yourself, skip creating a Twitter profile and simply search for Twitter feeds to follow that fit your interests. Twellow.com and Listorious.com provide directories of Twitter users based on category, or you can search for tweets containing key words at www.search.twitter.com.
If you want to tweet, you don't have to be a mill of original content to thrive on Twitter; aggregating and sharing good information that you find through other users or articles is effective (just make sure you give credit where it's due). Connections on Twitter don't have to be mutual -- even if you choose to follow a feed, whoever is behind that account won't receive your tweets unless he or she has chosen to follow them, and vice versa. Responding to tweets of others and "retweeting," or copying and posting tweets that you find compelling, can help develop a community.
Combining your personal and professional lives in a single feed can be a plus on Twitter as long as you focus mainly on work. Comments here and there that offer glimpses of your personality and interests may help build a rapport with your followers. Stick to a split of about 75% substantial, information-packed content related to work and 25% stuff about you and your other interests. Otherwise, you can create separate accounts for work and play -- maybe you have a hobby that you'd rather discuss exclusively. Name your accounts carefully so that anyone searching for you will land where you intend them to; for example, you may want to display your full name on your professional account and an unrelated one for your personal feed.
Don't make the common mistake of creating an account and then letting it languish. Beyond losing your visibility and competitive edge, you could leave visitors wondering why you have a profile in the first place -- and whether you know what you're doing. Get organized by using an application such as TweetDeck, which enables you to categorize your Twitter streams and simultaneously post a single message to Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In and other social networking sites.