I spoke to several groups of first and second year university students last week about personal branding. They are all in business or professional programs and their universities offer them sessions on networking and job interview skills. They are starting to realize that good grades are not sufficient for career success, and are having to think, for the first time, about their brands.
We can all think of excuses for postponing work on our personal brands. Students are overwhelmed with university work, and just want a few tips on how to sound credible to a recruiter. Employees starting out in their careers are preoccupied trying to meet their employer's expectations. More experienced employees realize that advancement and promotions bring new challenges that seem to take up all of their time and energy. And business leaders often tell me that their brands are now "fixed" -- so no need to work on them.
On the contrary, my advice is always to "start now" and "it's never too soon (or too late)." Even children have brands (he's the bright one, she's the creative one, he can't sit still, she is too bossy). Obviously, they can't manage their own brands, but parents try hard to do just that ("don't you dare label my child!") High school brings new challenges, because one's brand with one's peers is paramount. If teachers or employers or parents are disappointed but your friends think you're cool, life is good.
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If you're angry at your boss or playing hookey from work, you probably shouldn't tweet about it. Furthermore, warns Amber Yoo of <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>, tweeting your opinions about work-related topics can lead to trouble in-office. "Unless they are glowing, don't Tweet opinions about your company, clients, products and services. Employers are increasingly monitoring employee conduct on Twitter," says Yoo. "A <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/15/fired-over-twitter-tweets_n_645884.html#s112801&title=Cisco_Fatty_Loses" target="_hplink">tweet could cost you your job</a> if you aren't careful."
Details from your personal history are best left out of your Twitter feed. You can put yourself at risk for identity theft by revealing your birth date and place, your social security number, your maiden name or your mother's maiden name. Twitter also advises users to be wary of phishing schemes. "People are not always who they claim to be on their Twitter profile and you should be wary of any communication that asks for your private contact information, personal information, or passwords," according to the <a href="http://support.twitter.com/entries/115246-safety-privacy-cyberbullying-and-cyberharassment" target="_hplink">Twitter Help Center</a>.
Twitter's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/12/twitter-location-tool-exp_n_496464.html" target="_hplink">geolocation tool</a> can help you broadcast your location without squandering precious text space. However, geotags could potentially be used by stalkers to <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-08-08/foursquare-and-stalking-is-geotagging-dangerous/" target="_hplink">secretly track</a> someone's location. The good news is that you can <a href="http://support.twitter.com/articles/78525-about-the-tweet-location-feature" target="_hplink">turn this tool off</a> at any time.
Burglars have admitted to using social networks to plan <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/20/burglars-using-twitter-fa_n_652666.html" target="_hplink">home invasions</a>. If you share a public tweet saying that you'll be on vacation for a week, you're also telling your followers that you've left your home untended.
"Be careful not to share your daily routine," says Amber Yoo of <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>. "Tweeting about walking to work, where you go on your lunch break, or when you head home is risky because it may allow a criminal to track you."
Children can be easy targets for online predators and identity thieves. You can keep your kids safe by leaving their names out of your Twitter feeds and refraining from tweeting about where you pick them up or drop them off every day.
Insurance companies have been known to check Twitter when <a href="http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2011/02/28/bisb0228.htm" target="_hplink">investigating compensation claims</a> and may even look to social media when <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/22/facebook-twitter-users-co_n_471548.html" target="_hplink">assessing a customer's risks</a>. Tweeting about frequent climbing trips, for example, could result in a premiums hike. If you've filed for disability compensation, your insurance company could search for your tweets about high-risk activities and use them to supplement a fraud case against you.
The Twitter Help Center <a href="http://support.twitter.com/entries/115246-safety-privacy-cyberbullying-and-cyberharassment" target="_hplink">advises</a> users not to engage with bullies: <blockquote>You may encounter people on Twitter who you don't like or who say things that you disagree with or find offensive. Please remain courteous, even if the other people are not. Retaliation can reinforce bad behavior and only encourages bullies. Don't forward or retweet bullying or mean messages. Remember that the things you say can be very hurtful to other people. Don't turn into a bully yourself.</blockquote>
It's a risky move to tweet photos that show what you look like and what your home looks like. Including geotags with these types of photos could put you at risk. Moreover, some smartphones <a href="http://www.switched.com/2010/08/24/i-can-stalk-u-reveals-twitpics-as-creepy-tracking-devices/" target="_hplink">automatically embed geolocation data</a> into your photos, and you may not realize how much private data you're revealing with a simple snapshot. According to <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/geotagging-privacy" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>, "Your real-time location may indicate your home and work addresses, your commuting patterns, what religious institution you visit, how often you go to a doctor, political rallies you attend or whether you are seeking the advice of a lawyer."
"Employers routinely check out Twitter prior to hiring an individual, and have referenced social networking as helping them make choices on future employees," says <a href="http://www.reputation.com/" target="_hplink">Reputation.com</a> founder Michael Fertik. "Use better than average common sense when uploading photos to Twitter - if you wouldn't want your boss or grandmother to see it, it's probably a good idea to hold tight and keep it offline."
Some Twitterers annoy other users by tweeting constantly. Sifting through minutiae on Twitter can be a chore. "It gets annoying and takes space and attention away from other Twitterers' links and observations," <a href="http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2345283,00.asp" target="_hplink">writes</a> PCWorld. "If you have that much to say, maybe it belongs on a blog."
It is at university that people start to think about the trade-offs. At one workshop, a student asked a great question about how to speak up in class. Should he participate a lot, and risk being seen as a show-off by his fellow students, but build a good brand with his professor? Or keep quiet and hope for the best? Another asked about volunteering for campus activities. She had offered to take on responsibilities but had been rebuffed and accused of trying to take over.
I answered both questions the same way. A great brand is based on delivering value to others. Ask yourself if you are participating to make yourself look good, or because you really have something to contribute. In class, are you raising your hand every time a question is asked, or do you wait until you have something interesting to say? And are you listening to what your fellow students are saying so that you can contribute to a great discussion, or are you only waiting for your next chance to talk? When you volunteer for a campus opportunity, are you really asking what you can do to help? Or refusing to do any routine work in favour of the glamour opportunities? You are entitled to your share of the spotlight, but not to keep everyone else in the dark.
Group projects, the bane of many university students' existence, are a great place to start to recognize your strengths and build your brand. The best group is made up of people with strong but different brands. Someone is the technical expert, and will deliver the right answers. Someone else is the organizer, and will make sure everyone understands their deliverables, the work is shared equitably, and deadlines are met. You also want members with communication skills, creativity, the ability to inspire others, etc. Pay attention to the roles you play, and are good at. Then start to think about how to leverage those strengths in your career.
Too often, university students (and new employees) believe that if you just work hard, your professors and managers and colleagues will notice your strengths, and will offer you opportunities to advance and to showcase your talents. They believe that you should just "be yourself" and all will be well. Unfortunately, you may get overlooked, or worse, people may draw conclusions about your motives and goals that don't align with what you want. Thinking about the brand you are developing in a self-reflecting and strategic way is the antidote to finding yourself left behind.