Think you can ignore social media? Or that it’s OK not to know what comes up when you Google your name? Think again, says Michael Fertik, the founder and CEO of Reputation.com. “The Internet is working for you or against you, and there is no middle ground,” he says. “You can imagine you have no relationship with the Internet, but that means you don’t understand it and you don’t control your relationship with it.” In a world where more and more people will judge you based on what appears online, there’s no excuse for feigning ignorance or imagining it doesn’t matter. “You spend so much time on your resume, or brushing your hair for interviews,” he says, “but you leave it to the four winds how you look on the Internet?”
Staying on top of your online reputation does take time (if you’re creating content yourself) or money (if you’re outsourcing the process to others). That’s why it’s easy to move it to the back burner. “Many people think about this as something that doesn’t affect them until there’s a problem,” says Fertik. But it’s increasingly necessary if you want to build a professional reputation. “You can relinquish your influence over that reputation and your cultivation of it and just let fate take over, but it’s actively costing you something. Even if [your online reputation] is neutral, there’s an opportunity cost” because you may be missing out on visibility or connections that could help you.
Many professionals worry about the time commitment involved, which (if you look at celebrities who are active on social media, like Lady Gaga or Richard Branson) can be significant. But Fertik says not to worry; you probably don’t need to become a super user overnight. “You’re probably not going to be able to keep up [with Lady Gaga], but do you have to? You may want to dip your oar in 1-2x/week. But remember: it has to be consistent. The Internet can’t be your downtime; it’s your uptime that you’re using for whatever professional objective you have.” That means using Twitter to share cat videos (unless you’re a professional comedian or veterinarian) isn’t going to advance your career much.
So does that mean uploading a few vacation photos onto Facebook is verboten? “It’s not that you shouldn’t socialize online,” says Fertik. “They’re social tools – but they’re getting used less and less socially” and more with an eye toward overall reputation. “You have to assume everything spreads, and nothing you do socially should be inconsistent with your professional life.” That becomes even more important as privacy concerns grow, exacerbated by the vast data we’re now sharing about our lives. Given that so many online companies are funded by advertising, he says, “What this means is those people…are involved in collecting your data by giving you something to use and install data without your permission for purposes you don’t know.” Citing the “hooliganism by Instagram” and their recent privacy flare-up, Fertik says, “people don’t want this to be true, but it is.”
So how can you best take control of your online reputation? Whether you’re doing it yourself or outsourcing the process, creating a lot of good content is key. And, says Fertik, you’ll want to choose your platform wisely. “How can you tell if you should be using Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr? It’s very hard to tell and it requires data about your target audience.” Start with where your current and potential customers like to congregate. “If you’re trying to reach men,” he says, “don’t go on Pinterest,” which is known for its female following, “and if you’re trying to do something medical, don’t do it on Tumblr,” which built its reputation among teens and 20-somethings. Overall, focus on delivering interesting material to the people who matter, in a place where they’re likely to see it.
How are you building your reputation online? What’s worked for you, and what hasn’t?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on January 14, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.