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What if a potential employer, academic supervisor, or date searches for you online (as they certainly will), and finds—right there!—your elegant design portfolio or insightful blog posts, or the Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube account that demos your passion and thoroughly engaging personality? Establishing a positive online presence (a “personal brand”) can make the difference in whether or not you get seriously considered for an internship or job.

The internet offers a range of ways to help you capitalize on, showcase, and develop your skills and potential. When you are actively present online, sharing ideas, making connections, and discovering new opportunities and resources, those possibilities magnify. “Start with your LinkedIn profile and make sure it is tightly composed, easy to read, and to the point,” says Jeff Onore, a career coach based in Massachusetts. “If you are in a creative profession (or want to join one), then putting your work online is necessary. But don’t overdo it. Create additional online outlets only if you are committed to continually tweeting, posting, revising, and being attentive to your ‘brand.’”

1. What’s this for?

Here’s what a positive online presence can help you do:

  • Present your knowledge, skills, or passions to anyone who might evaluate you in a professional capacity
  • Add detail and colour to what’s on your résumé
  • Customize various profiles or social media accounts for particular audiences or goals
  • Give potential employers something good to find
  • Network and connect with others in your (future) field
  • Expand your exposure to work and news in your (future) field
  • Advocate for a cause or showcase your values
  • Personalize yourself in relatable ways
  • Demonstrate your commitment to your goals
  • Separate your public and personal online presence

Students speak to their goals

In a recent survey by Student Health 101, 82 percent of students who responded said that a proactive online presence could definitely or potentially be valuable to them. Nearly 1 in 4 said they were already working on this to some degree.

Present your knowledge, skills, or passions to employers or anyone else who may evaluate you in an academic or professional capacity
“I created a blog, an about.me page, and a Twitter account with content and resources which pertain to my future career and help to shape the professional persona I wish to convey. I link these at the end of career-related emails to give the receiver more information about me as a professional, as well as to show that I am focused, driven, and work hard in my field.” —Third-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

Add detail to the basic info on your résumé and LinkedIn profile
“I’m a visual arts student so I’ve been trying to set up all of my social media to reflect this. I make it as professional as I can while still fun to attract ‘fans.’” —Third-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland & Labrador

Customize your various profiles for particular employers or audiences
“I created profiles on several key social media sites and keep them consistent for professional/career, personal, or anonymous use. Information on blogs or other sites should also be consistent. Concentrate on a few key sites that have different benefits because it’s easier to keep everything up to date.” —Fifth-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

Give potential employers something to find
“I recommend developing a blog, a private Facebook, or YouTube page specifically for the intended purpose, using that account only to document and contact with employers for a position.” —Second-year undergraduate, University of Guelph-Humber, Ontario

Be in control of what comes up first
“I have gone about this by putting content out there that I am proud of; for instance, writing for the school magazine about topics I know or care about. Whenever my department wants to feature students on its website, I also jump at the opportunity. Now when I search my name, the articles I have written, and what has been written about me, are some of the first things that come up.” —First-year graduate student, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

Network and connect with others in your (future) field
“I’m in the fitness and health area for school so I have been following more health professionals on Twitter. This summer I’m going to start working in a gym to build a career in the health and fitness industry, so I’m planning on starting a Facebook page to promote my business and possibly a blog where I can post my thoughts on certain topics.” —Third-year undergraduate, University of Guelph-Humber, Ontario

Expand your exposure to key themes and news in your (future) field
“I have a separate Twitter account for my professional field where I only follow other accounts related to this and tweet about conferences and related material.” —Third-year graduate student, Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia

Advocate for a cause or showcase your values
“I would focus on social and environmental issues, since my goal is to enter a fulfilling career in a socially responsible company. I’d share how some companies are taking action, etc.” —Second-year undergraduate, Fleming College, Ontario

Personalize yourself in relatable ways
“I made myself appear family-oriented, [saying I] like to volunteer and am a trend starter. Posting pictures of my family and the things that I’m proud of is a boost to my reputation.” —Second-year undergraduate, University of Delaware

Demonstrate your commitment to your goals
“Recording my journey to reaching my goals would be nice to reflect on in the future. I think vlogging is pretty cool.” —First-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick

Separate your public and personal online presence
“I created an account specifically for work (I work with youth), so that if they want to add me, they will only have access to my work account, and not my personal one.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta

2. What kind of content?

What you post depends on your goals, your choice of online forum, how much time you have available, and other factors. Consider these steps:

  • Figure out who your target audience is
  • Create content that interests your audience
  • Share relevant content from other reliable sources
  • Speak to your audience in an appropriate voice
  • Incorporate visuals
  • Use keywords strategically so that you and your work are easily found
  • Consider creating different outlets for different purposes
  • Think about quality control
  • Minimize digressions from your theme
  • Be aware of your mood and motivation

How to figure out your content policy

Successful blogs and social media feeds are based around a particular theme. They usually include visual images: People are more likely to look at photos and graphics than they are to read words. Your theme could be:

  • Stylistic; e.g., showcasing your humour or design skills
  • Issue-based—presenting your take on a professional, social, academic, or political topic, e.g., advocating for local food sources or disability access
  • Interest-based; e.g., speaking to your talent or experience in computer coding or sports commentary

Some content elements are obvious. On LinkedIn, you would summarize your career goals and relevant achievements, with the option of posting your resumé and samples of your work. On a blog or personal website, you’d include a brief bio; present visual work or post updates; and link to relevant publications or your social media accounts.

These steps will help you figure out what to post

Think about who your audience is
“You want to tailor your messages [to] your audience. You want to be able to meet the needs of the audience you are trying to hit so think about their lifestyle.” —Dr. Mark Lee, Associate Professor, Ted Rogers School of Retail Management, Ryerson University, Ontario

Create content that interests your audience
“Have a specific goal that helps others. I think to brand and put yourself out there, it needs to be of benefit to others. Something that others can learn from, interpret, and incorporate into their own lives, depending on what your cup of tea is.” —Second-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

Share relevant content from other sources
“Look for interesting posts about your topic and share them. It’s a good idea to link to quality content and share things that are more ‘on topic’ for your audience. Use hashtags around that topic and grow a following that is interested in that topic.” —Andrea Vahl, Social Media Consultant, Author, and Blogger

Speak to your audience in a voice they recognize
“If you want to promote your personal brand, look at your audience. If your audience focuses on images, then that’s what you want to show.” —Dr. Mark Lee, Associate Professor, Ted Rogers School of Retail Management, Ryerson University, Ontario

Incorporate visuals
“I’m in architecture so for me everything is visual. Employers need to see a portfolio in order to see your skills. I personally use an online portfolio and send that around when applying for jobs, but I know others have entire websites to showcase their work.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Carleton University, Ontario

Use keywords and hashtags strategically
“Keywords [are] helpful. Oftentimes people will develop their own hashtags, and hashtags are then a way of building your identity. In social media the hashtag is probably the easiest one because you are able to put that everywhere. That would be the consistent message you can send out. That would be your logo in a way.” —Dr. Mark Lee, Associate Professor, Ted Rogers School of Retail Management, Ryerson University, Ontario

Consider different outlets for different purposes
“Choose your top three social media platforms and show you understand the differences between the platforms. You post different kind of content on Twitter than you do on Facebook. They do have different reasons for existing. So you may post the same information to all your different platforms but you shouldn’t be using the exact same wording.” —Shirley Lichti, Marketing Instructor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

Think about quality control
“I’m deleting all past pictures and posts that are too childish. Never post anything rude, offensive, or overly political.” —Third-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick

Minimize digressions from your theme
“Avoid sharing your every move, meal, or thought. When you post too much, you can overwhelm your audience and get unfollowed.” —Andrea Vahl, Social Media Consultant, Author, and Blogger

Be aware of your mood and motivation
“Would you say that to your grandmother? And if you wouldn’t say that to your grandmother then maybe you should think twice about posting it at all. Step back, count to 10, and then come back and ask yourself if you really mean to say that.” —Shirley Lichti, Marketing Instructor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

3. Which platforms?

Where to start? These questions will help you find your niche:

  • Where does your intended audience hang out?
  • Does your (future) career rely on a particular online skill or forum?
  • Are you aiming for a diverse audience?
  • Will your content involve visuals?
  • Will your content be time sensitive?
  • Will you have limited time for posting?
  • Do you want to integrate and connect your online networks and accounts?

How to choose your online forums

Successful blogs and social media accounts are dynamic and up-to-date. They involve a significant time commitment. If your goal is to display your visual work, a gorgeous website would be ideal, but an Instagram gallery may be more realistic and looks good, too.

Ask yourself these questions:

Where does your intended audience hang out online?
“It’s best to put yourself on as many different media platforms as possible, and try to build up some sort of following with frequent posts. It depends on how you want to ‘brand’ yourself. I’m a writer, so starting a blog or posting on several different writing journals could be a strategy for me.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Will your content involve visuals?
“I created a LinkedIn profile, but I would certainly love a platform to portray my work and my experience in a more visual format.” —First-year graduate student, Florida International University

Does your future career rely on a particular online forum?
“I have worked as a social media assistant before, and it is great to have an account on many social media websites, but keep it professional, regardless of if it is private or not.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland & Labrador

Are you aiming for a diverse audience?
“I would make an Instagram for my artwork, as well as a website or a Tumblr blog. Getting the work out so that people will see it and want to share it is the key.” —Second-year graduate student, Kutztown University, Pennsylvania

Will your content be time sensitive?
“Twitter is by far the best way to get news, mostly because it’s so immediate. If there’s a particular subject I’m looking for, I know exactly whose profile to go to in order to keep updated. It’s also super easy to follow a hashtag. If there’s something blowing up, and you go to a live feed, you can see the event unfold on social media. It’s incredible, really. I push my own content when I have it, pin tweets with my stories in them, and use hashtags.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, MacEwan University, Alberta

Will you have limited time for posting?
“I would lean toward trying to use easy advertising methods, such as hashtags on Instagram, where it is very simple for anyone to access what I am trying to put forward.” —Third-year undergraduate, New Jersey Institute of Technology

4. What’s public vs. private?

Which of your online outlets will be for public or professional purposes, and which are for your personal use? Could your existing profiles be re-oriented toward professional goals, or do you need to open new accounts?

  • Identify your professional/personal boundaries and appropriate privacy settings
  • Make sure you are easily found by those you want to find you
  • Give yourself an option for staying anonymous
  • Consider the professional relevance of your online identity
  • Check your existing accounts and privacy settings, including tag approval
  • Be conservative about what you allow or post

How to think about boundaries

Think about your public/private boundary
“I have made sure my privacy settings are very intense and that I know who is looking at my profile. I filter what pictures and posts I am tagged in and am conscious of what I post myself.” —Second-year undergraduate, Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia

Make sure you are easily found by those you want to find you
“Keep the same name, profile pic, imagery, and look across your social media profiles,” writes Kevan Lee, a professional content tracker at Buffer, an app that lets you plan and strategize your social media posts, in a blog post. This makes you more recognizable to your followers and helps you stand out.

“Be consistent with photos and a theme, and share your contact on all of the social media platforms [you choose to use].” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia

If necessary, give yourself an option for staying anonymous
If you want to post snarky updates or controversial comments that might give pause to future employers, keep an anonymous account. No one need know that @PrattlingParrot is you.

“[For professional purposes] I would create a second Twitter with my real name as the username and keep my original account fun.” —Second-year undergraduate, Drake University, Iowa

Consider the professional relevance of your online identity
“I’m going to be a teacher, so if I were to create new accounts (on Twitter or something) I’d make my username ‘Ms. Something’ instead of my first name or a pet’s name or whatever. Also, I only post positive things about my job and my classes in case future employers could see that.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of North Dakota

“I’m in linguistics so I’ve considered making a linguistics blog full of horrible memes because my jokes tend to amuse my colleagues. On Instagram I use hashtags about linguistics, mainly to connect with other people who like linguistics also.” —First-year graduate student, University of Ottawa, Ontario

In a recent survey by SH101, 69 percent of respondents said they had searched for themselves online with the specific goal of seeing what’s public and heading off potential problems (another 17 percent had not, but planned to). And about 90 percent said they are conscientious about whether or not their content is appropriate, at least some of the time.

5. Are you networking?

This is at least partly about networking, so:

  • Go public with your goals and achievements
  • Identify potential contacts
  • Aim to learn from them too
  • Build a relationship with your audience
  • Interact with your contacts

How to make helpful connections

Go public with your goals and achievements
“I have tried to network with as many people as possible so that they know what I am doing and [can] help me spread the news. Networking is extremely important.” —First-year undergraduate, Florida International University

Identify potential contacts
“I am looking to get into health law and I follow some health law professors, academics, and other health policy professionals I find through them. It’s a pretty small community.” —First-year graduate, University of Ottawa, Ontario

Aim to learn from them too
“I have started a blog but would like to further my knowledge [of the field] to build more of a stage for myself.” —Second-year undergraduate, Utah State University

Build a relationship with your audience
“I do believe that blogging or vlogging could be of interest to me. The most important thing would be to slowly create an association with readers/viewers. If you simply do it for yourself, you might as well keep a journal.” —Third-year undergraduate, Metropolitan State University of Denver

Interact with your contacts
“Something that very much benefited me was recognizing that ‘connecting’ online isn’t necessarily networking. I have random additions on LinkedIn who have not said a word to me in two years. Now I make sure I’m interacting. Have a reason for connecting and following up. Share information and identify where you can physically meet and talk. That’s the difference between ‘networking’ and just ‘connecting.’” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Lethbridge, Alberta

6. Are you being true to yourself?

Projecting positively online is not about faking it.

  • Be thoughtful about your photo and profile
  • Be the person you’d want to work with
  • Consider ways that your quirky perspective can work online
  • Consider building on your existing online foundation
  • Keep it real while staying on-message and mature

Keeping it real

Positivity is powerful—not just IRL but in how we reflect those real-life experiences online. “Stay away from negativity,” says Vahl. Tweet others as you would want to be tweeted. A 2011 study analyzed more than 46,000 tweets and found that positive messages were more likely to be retweeted (System Sciences).

Be thoughtful about your photo and profile
“[Use] the same profile picture, one that reflects your personality/you, [and] conscious and reflective profile descriptions.” —Second-year graduate student, Clemson University, South Carolina

Be the person you’d want to work with
“Use images you want seen, proper vocabulary, and reach out/network to the right people.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Trent University, Ontario

Consider ways that your quirky perspective can work online
“[I would] make it based on something unique about me, that other people could relate to. For example, I follow Diary of a Tall Girl on Twitter because her posts are super-relatable.” —Second-year undergraduate, Michigan Technological University

Consider building on your existing online foundation
“I think for those who have Facebook or Instagram, we’ve all pretty much already branded ourselves in some way—e.g., the foodie, the adventurer/explorer, the hipster, the politician.” —First-year graduate student, University of California, San Francisco

Keep it real while staying on-message and mature
“Ensure all material I post is relevant to my desired goals, post only professional material, and be honest in all my posts.” —Second-year undergraduate, Trent University, Ontario

7. Who can you learn from?

Take note of blogs, sites, and social media accounts that impress you, and why. Think about how you can learn from them:

  • Check out what’s working for others
  • Talk to people who present positively online
  • Find out what professionals notice

How to pick it up from others

Check out what’s working for others
“If I were to create a brand I would first brainstorm what I wanted my brand to be, and then link all my social media platforms to reflect that brand. I would look up similar brands and see what they do for inspiration.” —Third-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

Talk to people who present positively online
“I would definitely consult with people who have created successful personas online.” —Fifth-year undergraduate, San Diego State University, California

Find out what professionals notice
“I would potentially consult with professionals in the field to help me get the most out of it.” —Second-year graduate student, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Time is of the essence

To maximize the action on your social media accounts, post at certain times of day. Web marketing guru Neil Patel recommends this schedule (in Quicksprout):

Facebook

1 p.m.

1 p.m. – The most shares

3 p.m.

3 p.m. – The most clicks

Twitter

5 p.m.

5 p.m. – The most retweets

12 p.m. and 6 p.m.

12 p.m. & 6 p.m. – The highest click-through rates

Instagram

3-4 p.m.

3 – 4 p.m. – The most likes

Pinterest

8-11 p.m.

8 – 11 p.m. – The best visibility

Students: Inspiring blogs, video channels, and feeds

Twitter

Emma Watson
Emma Watson is a British actress most known for her role as Hermione in the Harry Potter series. She’s also an outspoken feminist, an ambassador for the United Nations, and a millennial role model. Check out her Twitter feed for empowering and insightful messages on gender equality, growing up in the spotlight, and using her fame as a platform for activism. + Visit Emma’s Twitter

Johanna Basford
Johanna Basford has played a huge role in the adult colouring books movement. She hand-draws all of the pages in her books, giving them a more authentic and original feel. Check out her down-to-earth Twitter feed for a peek into her world of drawing, to get some professional colouring tips, and to find out how her drawings have inspired others to become more creative and mindful. + Visit Johanna’s Twitter

Jeremy Lin
Jeremy Lin is one of the few Asian-Americans who have played basketball in the NBA. His Twitter feed is filled with positive messages, including proud posts about his heritage and photos showing how he gives back to his fans. + Visit Jeremy’s Twitter

Instagram

Dylan Millsap @dylanthenomad
This student, a talented photographer, goes around the world with his camera in hand. He’s studying screenwriting at the Academy of Art University in California.

Kara Benz @boho.berry
For how to live a more centered life, check out these tips on journaling, creating goals, and getting organized.

YouTube

John and Hank Green
You may know John Green as the author of The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin, 2012). He and his brother, Hank, are together known on YouTube as the VlogBrothers, and incited a band of followers who call themselves the Nerdflighters. Check out their channel to see the insightful videos that have become so popular. + Check out John and Hank on YouTube

Seán William McLoughlin or “Jacksepticeye”
For cheerful, engaging video commentary, come here. “Jacksepticeye on YouTube is my inspiration. He has a way of making [his audience] feel engaged and wanted even though truly we’ve never met each other,” says a second-year undergraduate at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. + Check out Jacksepticeye on YouTube

Estée Lalonde
This Canadian lifestyle and beauty video blogger is currently living in London. “Estée is my all-time favourite YouTuber! She is serious inspiration and her personality shines through her content,” says a second-year undergraduate at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. + Check out Estée on YouTube

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Article sources

Mark Lee, PhD, Associate Professor, Ted Rogers School of Retail Management, Ryerson University, Ontario.

Shirley Lichti, MA, Marketing Instructor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario.

Jeff Onore, Career Coach, Boston, Massachusetts.

Andrea Vahl, Social Media Consultant and Co-author of Facebook Marketing All-in-One for Dummies, Louisville, Colorado.

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Gruzd, A., Doiron, S., & Mai, P. (2011, January). Is happiness contagious online? A case of Twitter and the 2010 Winter Olympics. In System Sciences (HICSS), 2011 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences–2011, (pp. 1–9). IEEE.

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My Security Sign. #TakeNoBullies: Making digital responsibility stick. Retrieved from https://www.mysecuritysign.com/take-no-bullies

Patel, N. (2015, January 2). What are the best times to post onto social media? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.quicksprout.com/2015/01/02/what-are-the-best-times-to-post-on-social-media/

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Student Health 101 survey, February 2016

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Shannon Cuthrell is a journalist, freelance writer, and poet. She studies communications journalism, English, and psychology at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Her first poetry book, The Great Repression, was released earlier this year by Think Piece Publishing. She is passionate about mental health advocacy, neuroscience, and, of course, avocados.