I’m sure you’ve already heard this, but when it comes to social media, we are the “product.” The services are technically free, but we all pay a price.
The big platforms make a killing off of the time you spend there, thanks to their highly personalized ads. They know everyone you are connected to, who you engage with, what you click, what you share, etc. Businesses leverage that massive amount of data to show you ads they hope you will click.
Social media platforms also love drama, titillation, and arguments. That behavior draws attention, and the people who engage feed their hungry data machines. That improves their ad quality, the highly-targeted ads get more clicks, and that generates even more money.
When you use social media the way that they want you to, they get rich. But, what are you getting out of it?
At best, you receive some personal benefits like seeing recent photos from distant family members, reconnecting with old friends, and finding new ones. At worst, you fall into the trap of wasting time, endlessly arguing with strangers, and trying to change minds that will never be changed.
The social media giants are extracting billions and billions from all of us. Don't let them use you and get nothing of value in return.
Now, it's your turn to squeeze some juice out of them.
You can use social media to build your professional brand, grow a more powerful network, and advance your career. But, you must use it the right way.
Don't fall into the trap that I did for so many years:
I felt obligated to accept friend requests and follow people back, so my feed became polluted with content I didn’t enjoy.
I became so fed up that I rarely engaged, so the platforms stopped showing my occasional content to my friends in the feed.
To fix that, I started using scheduling tools to automatically broadcast on social media more often. But that made people tune out.
I finally returned to the roots of what social media was meant to be, and things improved. I became more human and authentic, and people responded. I took control of how I use social media, and now I enjoy the value of these platforms more than ever before.
Common mistakes people make
If you use your real name and identity for your social media accounts (some services require that), everything you do is tied to your reputation and influences how people view you. If you have alternative or throwaway accounts so you can have untethered fun on social media, you don’t have to worry about this as much.
Over the years, I’ve watched people using social media in ways that are potentially damaging to their careers. The choices they make are certainly impacting their reputations and professional brands.
In some cases, they don’t care or need to be concerned. They’ve made their money for life and can let loose with no worries about the repercussions.
Chad Hurley is one example. I’ve been surprised by the things he tweets. But then I remembered that he doesn’t give a damn.
He sold YouTube to Google for $1.65B in 2006. His current net worth is around $450 million. He doesn’t care what you think. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
However, if you still need to work to make a living, you might want to think twice about the social media presence you create. Here are some examples from a few people I follow online.
Posting a seemingly endless stream of various alcoholic beverages every day. A potential employer checking that out would check the box: “Alcoholic.”
Constantly raging against the machine, hurling insults at various politicians, and screaming curses at any individual who thinks differently. Who would want to work with such a ball of flaming rage?
Striking people down left and right with biting sarcasm, veiled threats of being canceled, and intellectual humiliation. Sure, they’re really smart. But, most people try to avoid ending up in their crosshairs and certainly wouldn’t want them as a coworker.
Only liking, retweeting, and sharing links to other people’s articles and posts. No one has any idea who this person really is, how smart they might be, if they have any talent, or what their point of view is on anything. Who would want to hire someone that demonstrates zero creativity or original thinking?
Engaging on social media with people every few minutes all day long. When does this person get work done? They supposedly have a full-time job, but I can see from their stream that they are posting and commenting all day and night. I would be reluctant to hire this person, and I’m surprised their employer hasn’t said something about how they are spending their workdays.
If this sounds like you, don’t kid yourself and say, “Hey, I’m being the real me!” You wouldn’t say half of that toxic crap to someone’s face. You wouldn’t behave that way at parties. You wouldn’t trash your boss in a meeting in front of others.
Or, maybe you would! But, if you did, there would definitely be consequences. You would lose friends, stop being invited to events, and you may eventually get fired.
So, it’s your choice. But don’t complain when things don’t go your way later.
Social media is fire. It can be a powerful tool when used wisely, or it can burn your house down when you act like a fool.
If you would rather take control of social media and bend it to your will, read on.
Weave a powerful network
Intentionally curate your network. Maybe you feel forced to accept that connection request from your uncle on Facebook. But, other platforms are different, and you should tightly control who you let into your inner circle.
For some services, it used to be that a connection had to be a mutual decision. That’s still true for a few services today. If you wanted to connect with me and see my stuff, I had to accept your request and make you a friend too.
You can still use this model if you take your account private (e.g., Instagram’s private account setting) or make your content only visible to approved followers (e.g., Twitter’s protected tweets setting). But, that doesn’t work well if you’re trying to build a strong professional brand and attract a following.
Now, most services let you follow people and see their public content without requiring a friend connection. For example, I follow some of my favorite authors on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. You can add smart and interesting people to your network very easily and start seeing their valuable content every day.
If you want to improve the quality of your social feeds and the engagement with your posts, be careful about who you friend and follow. I’m more selective now than I was in past years.
When I let too many people into my network, I would see way too much useless garbage in my feed (e.g., “Copy and paste this post to prevent Facebook from using your photos without your permission!”). I would also receive comments on my posts that were damaging to my professional brand and my mental health.
Now, I’m quick to unfriend and block people who behave badly. My accounts blend my personal and business life. I’m ok with polite disagreements, but I don’t need some jerk trying to destroy my confidence and hurt my business.
Craft a professional brand
Think about how you want to be perceived online. You can separate your 100% personal social profiles (e.g., Reddit) from the profiles where you might have a hybrid model of personal and professional content (e.g., Twitter) or 100% professional content (e.g., LinkedIn).
Unless your accounts are privately locked down, or you use a secret identity, you can rest assured that people will find you online. Every recruiter and employer I know uses social media services or specialized tools to check out potential job candidates, check up on employees, and evaluate potential business partners.
Whether you like it or not, your professional brand is impacted by what you say and do online. You can let your brand develop organically, or you can take control and shape it intentionally.
In your bios, be clear about who you are, what you do, what you care about, and how to learn more about you (i.e., link to your website). Use a profile photo that is aligned with how you want to be perceived too.
It might be fun to remember doing tequila shots on your last birthday, but does a potential employer want to see that? Probably not.
Of course, your professional brand goes way beyond your bio. It is built on the content you share. It is reinforced with every word you say and the actions you take.
Showcase your talent
It seems like many people think that the only ways to demonstrate their talent are through their resume, cover letter, portfolio, LinkedIn, and maybe an interview presentation. They save it all up and dump everything in those places.
However, most of those assets only come into play when you’ve already decided to pursue a job and interview with potential employers. How many potential opportunities have been lost because you don’t consistently share more about your talent on the services where people can discover you?
What you share on social media should be a mix of content to keep things interesting and balanced. The precise proportions vary based on platform, professions, and audience. But, here is what I like to do with my account and see from other people I follow (in priority order).
Posting original thoughts in your own words. These can be brief (1-3 sentences), but they demonstrate how you think, show what you believe in, and let your real personality shine through. I share things when a random relevant thought crosses my mind. I share snippets of content from my original articles. I also keep a notebook and Evernote list full of ideas that I can share later.
Natively sharing the original content you create (e.g., photos, designs, videos, writing). Note: this isn’t sharing a link to the content. This is your chance to shine! It’s how you can showcase your talent and be discovered. I follow many talented writers, poets, cartoonists, artists, and photographers because they share their own original content every day. I can’t wait to see what they’ve created!
Commenting intelligently on other people’s posts to show support, add value, and connect with like-minded folks. This has been the best driver for me to get more attention online and gain more followers, especially when the original poster has a large, relevant audience. Shallow comments (e.g., “Me too!”) and likes don’t really help you, other than tuning the feed algorithm to show you more from that person.
Sharing links to your original content. This could be something you wrote or created, your podcast, a video you produced, a book, a photo album, etc.
Sharing links to other people’s content (e.g., news, articles, videos, blog posts). You should always make sure that the content fits the professional brand you’re trying to create. You can occasionally share stuff that is off-brand. But, if you do that too often, people will unfollow you because you are no longer posting what originally convinced them to follow you. Last year, I muted or unfollowed some folks because they switched from sharing useful information to nonstop political posts.
Retweeting (or quote tweeting) and resharing from other people when they post something useful and insightful. Again, make sure that it’s aligned with your professional brand. I’ll often like funny stuff, but I don’t retweet it because it doesn’t fit the focus of my business.
Keep your eye on the prize
What is the number one thing that you want from social media? Don't say, "Get more followers."
Having followers is a means to an end. They're an audience for your message. They are friends with whom you can engage. But, acquiring more followers won’t necessarily help you achieve your goals if you don’t know what you want.
Take a step back and think about what you want the most. How can others out in this big ol’ world help you achieve that?
A new job.
A new consulting gig.
Potential employees for your team.
Investors for your startup.
More book sales.
Customers for your business.
More speaking opportunities.
Potential partners to collaborate with you on a project.
What do you want people to do if they like what you have to say? Where can you guide them to take that next step that gets you closer to your goals?
Keeping your eye on the big prize ensures that you stay focused. It helps you post relevant content, attract the right people, and direct them to the right destination (e.g., your website, GitHub profile, newsletter, portfolio, LinkedIn profile, author page).
Engage like a decent human being
It really does come down to behaving like a decent, intelligent human being online. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Engage in ways that reflect the way you want to be perceived.
I think that was the original intent of the first social media sites. In the real world, you won’t encounter all of the people you’d love to meet. You may never bump into someone you admire.
However, you can follow them online. You can make friends with great people from all over the world. You can engage in intelligent conversations.
That was the vision. Unfortunately, it became polluted by trolls and advertising. But, you can take control and wrestle social media back to what it should be.
Be more human, genuine, kind, and authentic, and people will respond to you. Intentionally structure your network and be smart about what you share, and the right people will want to connect with you.
Social media can be as wonderful or as terrible as you decide to let it be. You control who you follow and what you see. You control who gets to follow you and engage with you.
Your career will benefit when you use social media for your purposes. Your sense of wellbeing will improve when you take firm control of how you use it every day.
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This week’s professional development challenge
⭐ Professionally Leverage Social Media
This challenge helps you grow your online presence in a way that is aligned with your professional goals. It will increase your visibility and showcase how good you are at what you do.
It also lets people see more of who you are, what you’re about, and how you think. Be you!
Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who also runs a professional and supportive online community for solopreneurs and entrepreneurs (join us!). He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice that can help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.