Selling yourself on-line

We recently co-wrote an article with a partner of ours 'Extended Thinking' for the hugely popular 'Tax Adviser Magazine', although it stands for any person in any industry, not just Tax Advisors! The article is on building, managing and selling a powerful profile on-line.

It's pretty long, but very informative, so well worth a read.

Selling yourself on-line
Article written for Lesley Bolton, Tax Adviser Magazine, by Michelle Daniels, Extended Thinking and Chris Bullick, Pull Digital

The current downturn has demonstrated to many accountants and tax advisers the importance of creating an impressive on-line public profile. Be it to look for a new job, business opportunity or simply develop an individual’s network, the use of social networking resources such as Facebook and LinkedIn have soared. And it isn’t just the younger end of the profession, the Generation Ys, who have jumped on the bandwagon. Creating an on-line profile and reputation is proving a ‘must do’ for the more experienced and mature professionals too.

But what should you include to create the right on-line profile for you? And how do you manage your profile to stimulate quality business? How can you build a powerful reputation that distinguishes you from your peers? Combining their expertise, Chris Bullick of Pull Digital and Michelle Daniels of Extended Thinking give hints and tips on how to build and manage a powerful profile and sell yourself on-line.

For the uninitiated – a quick explanation
Social networking websites enable people to promote themselves, connect and interact with others on-line. Most sites typically enable you to create a profile that shows your history (career, personal or both), your contacts or friends, your interests, your successes, your thoughts and the groups you belong to. Think of them as your own personal home page – with ‘You’ as the product. But unlike a home page, your audience can interact with you more easily. Your network of contacts can send comments, ask questions, share thoughts, recommend and endorse you for others to see. You can manage what appears on your profile, but the purpose of social networks is to encourage dialogue and interaction between people on-line.

In the UK, the most commonly used sites are LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace although, like anything related to the web, things can change quickly. Each has a different focus and structure, Facebook primarily creates communities of friends (although it does blur the distinction between social and work friends), MySpace also creates networks of friends (primarily to communicate and share music, photos, watch videos) and LinkedIn is very much a business community. Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, described the distinction between the three as ‘MySpace is the bar, Facebook is the home and LinkedIn is the office’.

Weighing up the pros and cons
If you are a seasoned professional with a strong network of contacts, they’re another way to help you manage that network and keep in touch with people. If you are a more junior tax adviser (perhaps without a profile on your firm’s website yet) they are a great way to create your own personal homepage. This can profile your expertise to a specific market and help you build your client and contact portfolio. And if you are sole practitioner (perhaps without a web presence) social networks enable you to create one free of charge. Also, the main search engines, such as Google, regularly trawl through these sites. If you want people to find you on-line and make contact, creating a profile on a social networking site can get them in touch more quickly.

Whilst each social network resource can put you in touch with vast numbers of people, what you gain from that interaction very much depends on you. It’s easy for involvement in these sites to swallow up chunks of time. If you are also writing a blog (like an on-line diary), or tweeting on Twitter (another type of on-line diary but limited to statements of 140 characters or less and which people can access on their mobiles too), you could easily fill every hour with social networking activities.

These sites do have a value in a business context, they can help you:
 

  • Undertake your work – gaining advice, insight and experience from others
  • Spot career opportunities and position yourself as a strong candidate to new employers
  • Research potential contacts and prospective clients
  • Widen your network of contacts
  • Keep in touch and add value to your network of clients and contacts
  • Promote yourself to prospective clients you know
  • Help potential clients and contacts you haven’t yet been in touch with to find you and make contact

But to achieve these things, they need to be managed carefully.

To avoid wasting precious time and to gain a good return from your efforts, you need to be clear about why you’re using them. With that in mind, you should then project-manage your social networking activities alongside your other marketing, sales, client management, fee-earning work etc. That way you are more likely to gain the result you want from the time and energy you invest.

Integration – that’s the name of the game
Social networking sites shine a spotlight on you, your work, your interests, your network and what people think and say about you. You are the product here. But with your network’s interaction with you also featured, this profile creates a visual portrayal of your personal reputation for others to see. The best reputations in the tax and accountancy professions aren’t left to chance, they are usually carefully managed.

In the past, tax and accountancy advisers typically built an enviable reputation by:
 

  • Defining a particular market they wanted to work in
  • Focusing on specific technical expertise or service deliverables they wanted to become synonymous with in that market
  • Ensuring the quality of their work, successes, market knowledge and commerciality stimulated client recommendations, introductions and new enquiries
  • Giving comments and/or articles to that market’s press to publish
  • Presenting and/or networking at the market’s key seminars, conferences and other events

These activities rarely achieved their goal when they worked in isolation. In combination, however, they often created powerful reputations that differentiated one professional over another and made them ‘the’ person to go to. The good news is that nothing’s changed in this respect.

As one tax adviser from a regional practice, recently told us. ‘Social networking will help build your reputation to a certain degree. But it’s best integrated with other communications and business development tools in your profile-building kit bag. It’s all about having a plan. Decide what you personally want to become known for and then create a plan which mixes activities such as thought leadership, events, the social networks you interact with etc, to position that profile to people.’

So if you think social networking could help enhance your reputation and win business in a specific market, here are some key tips.

Start with your market or audience in mind
When building your profile or reputation always have your audience or market in mind. They will ultimately be the judge of whether you are what you say you are. They can help build your reputation or they can ensure it never really gets off the ground. So if you are looking to social networking to bring you business, think of the people in those sites who are likely to do so. If your chosen market doesn’t favour social networking, then invest your energies in activities they do use. If you are using these sites to get a new job, consider the firms or businesses you want to work for. With your target market or audience in mind, let them guide the content you place in your profile.

One tax professional, who has built a good reputation in the charity sector, told us, ‘You have to think through the benefits you bring people and articulate these in your profile’s content. Use language and terms they’d use rather than tax jargon or technical stuff. By articulating the benefits we brought to clients, I’ve gained a lot of attention from others in the sector. I’ve sometimes been flagged by search engines too, when people are looking for specialist advice’.

This tax consultant also carefully plans which groups, networks and people he profiles. ‘I need to maintain my position as an expert in the charity sector and so I always question what potential clients and contacts from the sector would find interesting. I have many competitors and need to make my profile really connect with the people interacting with it. I diarise actions in Outlook to make me keep my profile page up to date and interesting.’

Simple things can make a difference
In helping professionals build their reputations and profile on-line, here are 7 tips for creating and managing your profile page:
 

  1. Always opt to have your name in the url (web address) of your social networking page – it helps search engines find you
  2. Include your profile’s url in your email signature and on your website too, as this is popular with both people and search engines
  3. Complete all the information boxes that the social networking site gives you to create your page, but with a mind on what your network would be interested in
  4. Get a decent photo of yourself loaded up. It may cost a bit initially, but can pay dividends in encouraging a potential client to make contact with you rather than a rival
  5. When populating your network, always go for quality rather than quantity
  6. With sites that send updates within each network, consider what you want that broadcast to reveal about you. Diarise to change ‘what I’ve been up to’ fairly regularly and ensure you use this opportunity to flag activities that will be interesting and may insight others to contact you to find out more
  7. Even in the current climate, don’t try and pose or answer questions to your network that present you as fishing for work or selling. Ask/answer questions in a way that demonstrates valuable insight and a genuine desire to help. People are really savvy and spot disguised sales attempts. You’ll lose your credibility fast if you venture down this route

The power of recommendations
Endorsements are a great feature of social networking sites. Clients and contacts can recommend you and vice versa. One thing that surprises us is perhaps how shy we are in the UK to ask for them. At the same time, in our personal experience, we’ve found that people with good recommendations in their on-line profiles tend to also be great people to work with.

Once again, quality not quantity is a differentiator here. So if you’ve done a great piece of work for a client or contact why not ask them to recommend you? Likewise if you rate someone, then endorse them (they may reciprocate). Recommendations position your qualities in the words of the people who use you. This is far more powerful than any marketing blurb in your brochures or on your website. Also, in the current climate, people are invariably canvassing the opinion of others when looking to purchase something (this helps them mitigate the risk in their investment). It really does pay to make your recommendations accessible.

The conductor at the heart of your network
Finally, in creating your on-line network, be professional. You conduct the quality of your network. Behave to others as you’d want them to behave to you. Help people with their challenges, facilitate relationships and assist where you can to help them win business. In doing so, you’ll find the quality of the energy you inject into your network is reflected in the response you gain.

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