Beyond Branding | Your Guide to Building a Thoughtful Digital Identity

digital branding

In our digital world, presenting your professional self extends far beyond cover letters and resumes. It’s also about creating an entire digital presence behind that standard package.

If you’re anything like me—someone who places a premium on authenticity, privacy, and the intimacy of face-to-face interactions—the thought of representing yourself in such a public way can be a bit disconcerting. But no matter how you see it, it’s hard not to feel the pull to engage in a dynamic digital world.

Recently, I set aside time to really think through what it means to build a “digital identity” that represents me as an individual. Before writing for Idealist Careers, I always published articles, Tweets, LinkedIn posts—anything really—under the name of an organization. That said, I recognize that being a more active “producer” in the digital realm is a way to hone my own voice outside the brand of an organization.

I also know that I want to do it with a clear sense of purpose. That’s why I’ve drawn on my own reflections and bits of advice from personal branding professionals to help you (and me) thoughtfully shape our digital presence.

First, what exactly is a “digital identity?”

When I refer to “digital identity,” I’m talking about any bit of content that’s publicly visible online in connection with your name, be it a blog post, Facebook comment, or profile picture. It allows people to get a sense for who you are without necessarily speaking with you directly and it’s the part of your digital footprint—traces you leave on the internet—that anyone can see. This excludes things like email exchanges and browsing history.

There are lots of ways to create the public-facing side of your digital identity. Between building your own website, starting a blog, and posting content on social networking platforms, the opportunities are abundant.

Why bother building one?

Everyone will have distinct reasons for building a digital identity, but there’s one that has nearly universal relevance: it can support your position as a job candidate.

A few key facts are worth considering: according to a global survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 43% of organizations use social media and search engines to screen candidates and 36% have disqualified applicants as a result of their findings.

This shouldn’t startle you into throwing together a personal website and your first few Tweets in the next 24 hours; your digital identity merits more thought than that. I’ve highlighted these figures because they help to build a case for thoughtfully planning your digital presence, if it’s not something you’ve already considered.

Facts aside, the process should be motivated by more than necessity. Let’s reorient toward how to develop your digital identity in a thoughtful way that brings a number of other benefits:

1.   Be clear about your goals

You don’t need to be everywhere in order to have a strong digital presence. It’s the quality of your engagement that counts.

Even if you say to yourself: “I’d really like to have a distinct personal brand,” this is rarely, if ever, the end-game. There’s something valuable to gain beyond simply establishing a personal brand. Even for so-called influencers and entrepreneurs whose success relies heavily on a strong digital presence, personal branding is still a vehicle to grow a business or strengthen their voice in social or political issues.

Your goal may be to connect with like-minded individuals, crowdsource ideas for your next project, or share your writing on a widely-read platform. Whatever it is, identify what a digital presence will help you accomplish, and then use that to guide where and how you engage.

2.   Decide where to leave your footprint

Before you commit to a particular digital platform, you should be able to articulate why you’re selecting it. Is your goal is to be more actively plugged into news and dialogue in your field? Then social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter may be sufficient. If you want to share your writing, then you could test out publishing platforms like Medium.

If you’re not sure where to start, ask colleagues where they’re active or do some research on different types of social media, including anything from discussion fora to media sharing and interest-based networks. Also, bear in mind that your digital presence can extend beyond social networking platforms. For instance, there may be digital publications in your field worth looking into.

The point is that you don’t need to be everywhere in order to have a strong digital presence. It’s the quality of your engagement that counts. Plus, by being targeted with your choices, you have a better shot at building community among your connections or acquiring a group of dedicated readers. This can make the experience feel a bit more genuine and familiar.

3.   Identify who exactly you plan to put forward …

Personal branding experts consistently stress that what we say and do online should be authentic. But humans are complex beings, with varied interests and evolving opinions—so how can an avatar represent us? Think of it this way: when you first meet someone in person, you don’t have to reveal all aspects of who you are for the interaction to be authentic. The same idea applies to your digital presence; you can pick components of yourself that best fit whatever aim you identified.

To work through this, it helps to develop a brief personal statement that captures what problem you work to solve, for whom, and your individual strengths. There’s some helpful guidance with suggested questions like: What are your deepest values? or If you were to receive an award, what would it be for?to help you brainstorm.

Whether you call this a personal brand statement, a personal mission statement, or an elevator pitch doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that you come up with something you’re comfortable writing or saying publicly, which also guides what content you publish and your unique take on it.

4.   … and when

Now here’s a tricky question: if this statement is public, should it be identical wherever it appears? My conclusion is that it doesn’t have to be identical, but it should be consistent.

Unless you’re highly specialized, you may have multiple strengths or experiences you want to highlight in different contexts—just as you might adjust your resume when applying to different positions. You can identify the fundamental, never-changing part of your personal statement and consider the other components tweakable. For instance, a tweak could be to explain your presence on that particular platform: “I’m a communications specialist who writes for Idealist Careers to share my thoughts on leadership, relationship-building, and career development with other social-impact professionals.”

5.   Decide what type of content to publish

Your personal statement will undoubtedly guide the content you put out. But let’s also consider that each comment you write or piece you publish may have a slightly different intention. With this in mind, I find it helpful to come up with a “content ratio.” For instance, one-third of what you post could be your take on trending industry news, another third highlights projects you work on, and the final third poses thought-provoking questions.

6.   Develop your voice

Finding your voice isn’t always easy, but it’s important that your digital identity sounds like you. To find your voice, try answering these basic questions:

  • “What style do I typically bring to my interactions?”
  • “Do I enjoy healthy debate, or do I play the role of diplomat?”
  • “How do my friends describe my tone? Am I serious, humorous, formal, or informal?”

Keep your answers nearby when drafting content. Your personal statement may help define what you say, but finding your voice helps you really hone in on how to say it.

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We could be here forever talking about digital identity. This article only scratches the surface. For instance, I often ask myself: “What’s the line between a person’s personal and professional identity?” What are some questions you consider when it comes to your digital identity?

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Jen Bogle is a communications specialist who writes for Idealist Careers to share her thoughts on leadership, relationship building, and career development with other social-impact professionals.
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