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How to Optimize
Social Media for
Your Personal Brand

TIPTopics for Students

Jessica Sorenson,
Thomas Sasso,
and Grace Ewles
University of Guelph

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As graduate students we spend a substantial amount of time preparing for our future by developing the necessary skills and credentials to succeed in research or practice. However, we often fail to consider how to best communicate these aspects of our expertise and training to fellow researchers, peers, supervisors, or potential employers. This component of professional development is critical to establishing your own unique niche in a competitive job market. In the words of branding expert Tiffany Poeppelman, “if you’re not branding yourself, you can be assured others are doing it for you. A brand is your reputation, professional identity, and how you show up” (personal communication, August 25, 2016). In this TIP-TOPics column, we explore how to create and sustain your own personal brand using social media to optimize your network and create impact so others are less likely to do it for you.

Just as a company might brand itself to target a specific market, individuals can develop a personal brand to target specific audiences. In this sense, branding is a form of self-presentation to influence how others perceive you. Your personal brand can be shaped by what you say, what you do, and what others say about you; based on your identified audience, you can tailor your strategies for maximum impact. One of the most common tools for personal branding is social media, given the multitude of platforms and extensive reach.

Despite the ease of communication, the dominance of social media has created considerable challenges for crafting a professional image. Self-presentation is no longer just about the persona in your physical interactions, your digital footprint must also reflect a professional identity that sells our best (yet authentic) selves. As graduate students, we use social media for both personal and professional purposes. This includes communication, collaboration, education, and entertainment. We connect with others on Facebook walls and groups, share information with colleagues on LinkedIn, read recently published work that has been tweeted out, and we partake in the “occasional” online game or gossip story about the last episode of Real Housewives. But our online activity is not just a place to escape; it is a frontier of new possibilities to develop our professional identity. Graduate school is the “perfect time to start shaping one’s personal brand as it’s the best time to begin thinking about your value proposition and differentiators in the market” (T. Poeppelman, personal communication, August 25, 2016). Find what you love, and use that to create a name for yourself. You want to add value, and your expertise as a graduate student situates you in a position to provide meaningful contributions on social media.

Dutta (2010) framed social media as being useful for three purposes: constructing your brand, outreach, and learning. Social media contributes to branding through the construction of an online identity that fosters a professional and personal image. What someone posts, retweets, or comments about online may be associated with that person and reflect on how others perceive that individual. The way you brand yourself on social media will be viewed by those who know you and those who have never met you before. If you think about your social media presence as a constant introduction to new people, what is your brand telling them? Will they understand your sarcasm and humor? Are you presenting someone that is credible, intelligent, and likeable? What you do on social media is a source of information that individuals will use to try to understand you and your brand.

The influence of branding is important because social media also increases outreach. You can sit at your computer in Wichita and instantly have access to communicate with potential collaborators in Barcelona or Melbourne. Your post from Buenos Aires on LinkedIn about a great article in the Harvard Business Review can resonate from Oslo to Cape Town. Your network of potential future employers, employees, and clients has shifted from your local young professionals networking event to a diverse global network.

However, it is not just geographic outreach that expands with social media, your brand becomes accessible across time, too. In the realm of social media, something you posted or liked 2 years ago, or during a night out, can come back at the most inopportune time to haunt you, such as during a job interview. Remember that what you do on social media can often be dispensed by others without your permission. As your audience and outreach expand, so too does the risk of developing a consistently professional brand.

The third purpose of social media noted by Dutta (2010) was the impact on learning. Online platforms provide an opportunity for you to engage with new content constantly. You can use social media to learn what others are doing to prepare for the job market, think tank a roadblock with your thesis by posting on your Facebook page, or engage in debates about topics that will expand your knowledge and interests. Social media provides you with a tool for quick, responsive, and interactive feedback.

Platforms

Various social media platforms offer graduate students a quick, cheap, and easy medium for crafting your brand and connecting with people and organizations with whom you might not otherwise get an opportunity to connect. However, it is helpful to keep in mind which platform is most useful or best suited for your brand. One suggestion is to stick to what you prefer or already use regularly, as it can be “a common misconception that you need to use them all” (T. Poeppelman, personal communication, August 25, 2016). Our list is not exhaustive, there are certainly other platforms (e.g., ResearchGate, blogs, Instagram, Pinterest), but regardless of which platform you choose to make use of for getting your name out in the world, it is important to think about your target audience, message, and the best use of this particular platform. Not only does this benefit your personal brand, but it also builds recognition for I-O psychology more generally (Poeppelman & Blacksmith, 2014). As graduate students we benefit if our credentials in I-O psychology are recognized and respected by a larger audience.

Tip from Tiffany Poeppleman:

1.      Pay attention to the ways that other well-known I-O psychologists “engage, lead, and guide discussions to establish their professional brand online and offline” (personal communication, August 25, 2016).

LinkedIn

One of the more well known social media platforms that can be utilized for crafting your professional brand is LinkedIn. This platform can get a bad rap due to the argued impersonal nature and for allowing overzealous connections. Although the primary function of LinkedIn is to share your credentials, it is also useful to communicate your professional ideals, goals, and maintain professional connections. Having said this, it is important to make the “right” connections on LinkedIn, including key people in your field and applicable groups or influencers. Moreover, in order to optimize this platform, you must customize and continually invest time in your profile, not only to remain current but to inform your connections of your ongoing training and development. 

Tips from TIP-Topics:

  1. Customize your profile to let your professional personality shine by using your summary to communicate a short and impactful message. For example, if you have minimal work experience, focus on communicating your purpose or goals. In the words of Simon Sineck (2009) “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Or perhaps you can use your summary to answer the question we posed to you in our first column, “What do you hope to contribute to society?”
  2. Maintain the interest of your key connections by liking, sharing, and commenting on their posts. This keeps your name in their minds and in the minds of any of their connections that might view your activity. You can also have more impact by keeping specific people in mind to share things with, and sharing posts across connections who may benefit from a conversation on a certain topic.

Twitter

Twitter is a fascinating social media platform that operates in contradiction to most of our graduate education. Twitter gives you 140 characters to make your point #KeepItShort #BeConcise. As a platform it is relatively straightforward and easy to use for establishing a professional brand with diverse audiences (i.e., academics, practitioners). When effectively used, your tweets are an opportunity to create interest in you, your ideas, and your work. A tweet should entice someone to want to hear more from you. Therefore, the majority of your effort on Twitter should be spent providing unique, beneficial, and specific content that demonstrates to others your expertise.

Tips from TIP-Topics:

  1. Your username should be short and appropriate. Share your handle on conference presentations, business cards, and your email signature.
  2. Have a Twitter bio that mentions topics you often tweet about. If that includes being a foodie, include it. Twitter thrives from a more humanized approach.
  3. Find Twitter mentors. Follow users with similar interests from whom you can learn; model their style but don’t replicate their content.
  4. Follow organizations and thought leaders in your field. Don’t be afraid to tweet them when you have a novel contribution to make. You might even get a retweet across their network.
  5. Use trending hashtags commonly used by others with your interests (e.g., #diversity #iopsychology #SIOP). Avoid unique hashtags; although entertaining, they won’t maximize your visibility.
  6. If you want to initiate a more meaningful conversation, direct message someone. Tweets entice short term communication, but longer conversations are better elsewhere.

Facebook

Despite being primarily used for social reasons, Facebook still offers opportunities to build personal brands, including the use of groups to organize large numbers of people, share/seek resources, and engage in conversations. Even some SIOP committees have groups for sharing resources around topics related to the purpose of the committee (e.g., the Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs). These groups can be helpful to gather resources and connect with a wider group of people that you might struggle to connect with otherwise. Also, we cannot deny the inherent ability of Facebook to do what it was originally designed to accomplish: connect classmates. We’ve been told, and truly believe, that you make some of the best friends in your life in graduate school. Facebook not only helps you build these friendships, but also helps you keep them once graduate school is done. It offers a deeper, more personal, connection for those individuals we would rather call friends than colleagues.

A Tip from TIP-Topics:

1.      Know your privacy settings, as they are often more complex than you might think!

Conclusion

 Crafting your brand takes time and effort to do well. None of us are social media experts; our LinkedIn pages aren’t always updated, we retweet without adding content, and our Facebook contains more memes of adorable animals acting like humans than is justifiable. But we are engaging in the process of getting better and being more active users of social media to shape our brand. We are critically thinking about what we each want our social media presence to say about us.

Start by asking yourself for what do you want to use a social media platform. For one author, Twitter and LinkedIn are professional platforms, and Facebook is a personal platform. As a result, someone may be denied a Facebook friend request but accepted on LinkedIn. Strategically comb through your contacts who have access to your profiles and refine your list to those you know well enough to trust with your personal information (the content we want our mothers, best friends, and employers to see are very different).

If you are using social media for a professional brand, remember to reflect before putting content out. Is it something you will want attributed to you in the future? Occasionally go through your social media accounts and look at past items posted. By deleting things you don’t like any more you are demonstrating a change in your brand.

We are reminded of the old adage, there are consequences for your actions. That holds true with how you engage with social media. Some of those consequences might be positive; and other times, you might be able to live with the negative repercussions. But in spite of all this talk about risk and careful management of your social media brand, don’t forget to have fun with it. Do you want to Instagram your food? Go ahead. Do you want to notify the world that you loved the new Ghostbusters movie and think others should see it? Go for it. Social media is a creative way to engage with the world around us, personally and professionally, and no brand is more unique than you presenting your authentic self. Tiffany Poeppelman, a branding expert, highly recommends “bring[ing] some personal content and show[ing] who you are as a person” (personal communication, August 25, 2016). By showcasing your personality, you distinguish yourself from others and leave a lasting impression on the reader.

We like to think of your brand as going white water rafting down a river of tumultuous rapids. You can shift your boat in certain directions to avoid the rocks, but at the end of the day you are going to get wet, and you are likely to hit a few bumps along the way. Social media is social, and as such others have a significant impact on your online presence. Others may post things about you, readers of your online output may perceive what you wrote in a way you didn’t intend, and online trolls may seek to bring you down. You have to work to keep your boat safe, but you can never completely control your experience unless you opt not to go in the first place. But if you don’t get in the raft, you are missing out on some incredible opportunities that may lead you toward your desired destination.

 

References

Dutta, S. (2010). Managing yourself: What’s your personal social media strategy. Harvard Business Review, 1-6. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2010/11/managing-yourself-whats-your-personal-social-media-strategy

Poeppelman, T. R., & Blacksmith, N. (2014). Personal branding via social media: Increasing SIOP visibility one member at a time. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 51(3), 112-119.

Sinek, S. (2009, September). Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en