This is a public service announcement from me -- a veteran of the dot-com boom, a consultant for web enterprises medium and small (but rarely large), a person whose life is lived with integrity online and off -- to you, a person who owns and runs (or is about to own and run) a business with a web presence:
Be awesome online.
Yes. Just do it. Just pretend the best, most authentic version of you as a business owner has been compressed into a gigabyte or two, and send that person deep into the internet to represent your organization. Send him or her with marching orders to consider every word, every image, every punctuation mark carefully. You're not "building an online persona." You're manifesting your most awesome self into pixels and characters -- and every single one matters.
A.k.a., don't tell un-truths. Are you running your business in the off-hours when you're not at your nine-to-five job? Don't post business hours on your site. Don't schedule tweets to go out when you cannot possibly check your Twitter account for hours and hours. Don't sign up for webinars you have to watch in between meetings at your desk.
Integrity is the most important reason for this rule, but another great reason is Google. Especially if you're selling a service, if someone wants to hire you, they're going to search for you online. They will check out your LinkedIn profile. They will try to see anything they can of your Facebook account. If they want to know it, the chances are good that they will be able to find out. Pretending you're working in a city you don't live in, during hours you're not available, attending meetings you can't possibly attend, will come back to bite you in the behind, leaving you (and your behind) feeling decidedly less awesome.
Whether you are compressing content for Twitter, posting an update to your business page on Facebook, writing a blog, or commenting on someone else's content, behave as though you were being graded on grammar and spelling. Trust me, someone is giving you a grade; you just don't know it. You must:
- Punctuate contractions (wont is very different than won't);
- Spell correctly;
- Know the difference between they're, there, and their; your and you're; its and it's;
- Use end-of-sentence marks appropriately, including knowing when to use a question mark;
- Research and implement the right spelling of business names (iPad not IPad, Microsoft not MicroSoft, etc.).
Because texting has changed "That's funny!" into "LOL" and "Excuse me for a moment" into "BRB," we are all tempted to use shorthand and context to do the heavy lifting of communication for us. When it comes to your business, however, you really do want to be as clear in your message as possible. Your web site, your tweets, your updates -- they are all shareable, permanent, and forever indexed by the internet. When in doubt about the functional clarity of your message, you would do well to heed the advice of the brilliant Alfred Yankovich.
Did your client blow off your invoice, again? Did your vendor show up twenty minutes late to your meeting smelling like sausage and onions? Did you have to fire an employee for stealing sticky notes? Keep it to yourself online. Don't post about it on social media, either your business page or your personal one. Here's why: Google again. Even if you know there is no possible excuse for the thing that just happened to you, you will just come off looking bitter without the backstory. Someone looking at your history, even months or years later, will just see you as cranky and complaining.
Lest you think this is cautionary in a didactic, parental kind of way, I will admit it happened to me once. A client had their office network hacked, which had nothing to do with my work on their website hosted offsite. The client, not being a technology specialist, thought the dancing male enhancement advertisements on her screen came from software installed on her web site by me (no!) and called me to have it removed. I had to be the one to tell her that her computer and -- it turned out -- all the computers in her office were infected with a virus. I felt just awful for her and tweeted that it felt terrible to be the bearer of such bad news about a client network. Months later, a prospective client admitted that she was worried about working with me because she thought I would think she was technically inept, based on my tweet. No backstory, no context -- no confidence. Lesson learned.
I blog every week, with occasional exceptions. I post on Facebook from one to three times a day, with my audience intended to be prospective and existing clients. I tweet irregularly throughout the week, mainly to share industry related information and connect with fellow business owners and web-geeks. I keep this all fairly regular and predictable. No one who follows my blog is expecting to get detailed instructions on programming in PHP. No one who reads my twitter account expects to get photos of my children.
This is important, because we all silo ourselves a little bit online. It can be very jarring to see something out of place -- when I am working, I am not thinking about pie recipes, and so if anyone posted one on LinkedIn, it would be not just out-of-place, but annoying. As you build your presence online, try to think in terms of what fits where, and how you'll be using each medium for your business.
Be Human (Mostly)
Anyone who reads my blog knows that one of the most important tools I use on a daily basis is café mocha. It's endearing (I hope) and it's also true. If I meet you for an introductory consulting session at a coffeeshop, that is actually what I will order. No one will believe that you are a business machine twenty-four hours a day, and you may as well be honest about it.
That is not to say that you should talk endlessly about your day job if you have one (see above), your taste in music (above again), or pie (again, above). However, inserting these little moments of humanity can create actual points of connection between you and the people who follow you online. Done subtly, they are the difference between the five thousand other web developers in a ten mile radius of your house and me, with whom you feel comfortable at a meeting, ordering a mocha. (And a cookie.)
Be honest. Be literate. Be respectful. Be consistent. Be human.
Be awesome. You are doing what you're doing because you're great at it, and there's no reason not to put your most awesome foot forward in person and online. Make the people who are reading your words and looking at your pictures say "wow, that person is someone I want to know." That's the best way to sell your work, your product, and your business online. The rest is just pixels and characters.