Boost your career with social media
29th Mar 2009 | 08:00
How to use Twitter and other networks to get ahead
Preparing for the future
While yet another mention of the words 'credit crunch' might make you want to run screaming, the truth is that times are uncertain for freelancers and the employed alike.
It's hard to find new clients and seemingly secure jobs could be gone tomorrow. But when unemployment is rising and every opening has hordes of rabid candidates battering down the doors, how do you make your application stand out? How do you find new clients in an economy where budgets are being slashed and projects iced, with recovery not forecast for another 12 to 18 months?
You can't predict the future, but you can prepare for it. And central to that is taking good care of your online presence. It's no secret that employers, recruitment agents and clients alike frequently type the names of potential hires into Google, just to make sure there's nothing in their profile that might embarrass the company. These days, taking care of your reputation is just as important as having your CV up to date.
"It's almost an insurance policy against any kind of unforeseen future disasters," says Nancy Williams, managing director of Tiger Two and an online reputation management expert. "What you have online is important, because when you've got a glut of potential employees out there, you're not just going to be chosen on your CV – you've got to show them something extra."
Yet while most professionals working in the web industry will have some sort of web presence, often it's an old site, including a CV they wrote during their last job hunt. It's easy to understand why these things age: it's tedious to keep reworking a professional site or CV. But a plain vanilla website isn't enough; you need to go a bit further to stand out from the crowd.
Increasingly, web designers and developers are using blogs, professional networking sites and microconversation services such as Twitter, not just to express their professional opinions but also to widen their networks and connect with new leads.
Dust off the cobwebs
The most obvious place to start is your own website. If you haven't paid much attention to it recently, it's time to dust off the cobwebs. Not only should it look professional, but visitors should easily be able to find key information, such as what you do, your client list and your areas of expertise.
Many experts swear by blogs as a great way to get noticed by new clients or employers. "Most of my work comes via referrals and my blog," says Leisa Reichelt, a user experience designer (disambiguity.com). "I've had lots of clients tell me, when they first contact me, that they've been reading my blog for some time. It gives them a good sense of who I am, so when they hire me they feel they know what they're getting."
Your blog isn't just a place for you to showcase your expertise, it's also an opportunity for you to take part in wider conversations, either through the comments or by writing responses to blog posts. Of course, you should take care when writing about your job or clients, and make sure you don't say anything inappropriate or breach confidentially agreements.
But discussing your work can be a powerful way of attracting interest, as design guru Jon Hicks discovered when he blogged about the Firefox logo redesign. "The Firefox post was a big thing," Hicks says. "I saw my blog stats go up incredibly and a lot of people say they found me through that. They discovered I was the Firefox guy."
Tools such as WordPress or Movable Type enable you to easily maintain your site, including static pages for client lists, CVs and project information. If you don't have your own site, TypePad or Blogger will host the blog for you.
Twitter and other tools
The wisdom of Twitter
Another useful application is Twitter, the increasingly popular service that enables you to send status updates of up to 140 characters by web, SMS or mobile web. While many have characterised Twitter as the ultimate waste of time, it can be a great way of keeping interesting people in your peripheral vision.
Leisa Reichelt, who coined the term 'ambient intimacy' to describe the way Twitter and similar tools enable you to keep in touch with people by broadcasting tiny bits of information about your life, has found it to be invaluable. "Twitter gives me incredible access to a professional network that I would otherwise never have any contact with," she says. "Without Twitter, I would only ever know them through things they publish formally, such as books, which give some insight, but nothing like the insight you get from sharing their experiences 'in the moment'."
Once you've built up a network of friends and peers, Twitter can also be a great source of advice. "Having access to such a vast pool of talent and experience is exceptionally valuable," says Reichelt. "It makes me smarter, and I can work faster. I have well and truly made back all the time I spend Tweeting, thanks to the cleverness and generosity of my Twitter friends."
A whole ecosystem of third-party tools and services has grown up around Twitter. Desktop clients such as TweetDeck and Twhirl make using Twitter easier, while photo sharing services such as Twitpic enable you to upload an image from your mobile phone and send a link to it to your Twitter account.
There's a lot to explore, and it's worth taking the time to see what most interests you. But before you throw yourself into Twitter, take a moment to think about how transparent you want to be. Some people keep Twitter focused solely on their work, others are comfortable enough to reveal things about their personal lives.
Whatever you decide, don't go over the top: there are some things that the world just doesn't need to know. Don't get yourself fired or dropped from a project because of an ill-conceived Tweet.
Spread your wings
It sounds like a cliché, but sadly it's true that it's not what you know, it's who you know. Many job vacancies are never advertised, filled instead through word of mouth. This is why it's important to widen your network as much as possible – if there's a job out there that's right for you, you need to hear about it first.
LinkedIn is probably the best known professional networking site, but it's also worth looking at the more European alternatives Xing and Viadeo. Social media strategist and LinkedIn/Xing evangelist Julius Solaris says these sites have been invaluable for him.
An active LinkedIn user, he has 9,500 people in his network and runs a popular events management group with more than 5,300 members. He started the group nearly a year ago and spent a lot of time promoting it, but his hard work has paid dividends. "I knew that if I got the word out about my group," Solaris explains, "companies working with events and IT would be interested, and that's what happened. "The community grew so big that an online event ticketing services company contacted me. We worked together with the group, talking about the product and holding events all around the world."
As with Google, employers and recruitment agents use LinkedIn to headhunt. Sometimes they're overt, using Groups to find interesting people or to advertise their jobs, but they can also be more discreet, using their status line to ask for applicants to get in touch.
Equally, people looking for work often let their network know about their availability, information that can get passed on until it reaches the right person. Add new contacts to your network as soon as you can after meeting them so that they don't get lost in the dusty corners of your memory.
There are so many opportunities online that it's easy to forget how useful offline can be too. Put your blog's URL, Twitter username and your professional profile's URL on your business cards. Moo provides high quality but cheap cards in varying sizes that are fully customisable. If you're a designer, consider putting examples of your work on a photo sharing site such as Flickr and then using those images on the back of your Moo cards.
Also, search for smaller communities that are focused on your area of expertise, whether on forums or even mailing lists. "Good old-fashioned email lists are still important in my line of work," says Leisa Reichelt. "It can be quite time-consuming to keep up, but I've seen them used very successfully by people in my peer group to help build their reputation. For example, any user experience person worth their salt should know about the IXDA mailing list."
Be prepared to get out to meet-ups, conferences, user group meetings and other events. Talking to someone face-to-face can be a good way to cement an existing online relationship, and meeting strangers in person can give you whole new avenues to explore online.
Dealing with critics
There can be a downside to all this: the more visible you are online, the more likely you are to attract critics, some of whom can be quite vociferous. When that happens, Nancy Williams says, "the first thing people do is panic, but it's vital you avoid a knee-jerk reaction".
Instead, she recommends you look objectively at the criticism and try to understand what's behind it. If there's something you can do to rectify the situation, do it. "Apologies can do great things for your reputation, as they show honesty and a willingness to take responsibility for mistakes or misfortunes," Williams adds. "But if you think someone's just out to cause trouble, be careful how you respond.
"In that case, getting into a debate is generally not the best way to handle things. All you can do is try to build the bigger picture. Address it head on in your own blog, if that's appropriate, but try to avoid getting into a flame war, because that will damage your reputation. Sometimes, if it's a troll, the best thing to do is to ignore it."
Break it down
On paper, starting a blog, joining Twitter and putting your profile on LinkedIn doesn't sound like much, but the key is to fully engage with not just the tools, but your community. A half-hearted stab at it won't help.
Solaris admits building your profile can be hard work, but believes it's time well spent. "If you ask me, 'Is there a magic trick?' I don't have an answer," he says. "But I do know every little counts and you need to be proactive."
It will also help your future clients or employers if you aggregate everything. Your blog should be the centre of your online universe, so pull in your Twitter stream to the sidebar, link to your LinkedIn profile and list the communities that you're part of. Bringing your entire professional online presence together will make life easier for others and probably help your ranking in Google too.
But if it starts to feel overwhelming, just break it down into bite-sized pieces and do a little bit every day. Try to make it part of your routine, as habitual as your morning coffee or checking your email. Once you've embedded it in your life, you'll barely notice it's there.
First published in .net Issue 187
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