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How to Balance Your Personal and Professional Presence Online

This story appears in the November 2013 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

As Twitter has grown in influence as both a social platform and a communication channel for companies, I have recalibrated the way I interact with people there--and, by extension, any social network where I represent my brand. It has been a subtle shift, but an important one.

This was on my mind when a question came up at a marketing event where I spoke recently: How do you balance the personal and professional on social networks?

I advocated for a blending of the two. At its heart, that's the real opportunity of social media, isn't it? People do business with people--not faceless, soulless edifices. Don't you want your prospects and customers online to have an opportunity to get to know you, just as your contacts in real life do?

However, since that event, I've given the subtleties of the matter more thought. It's a delicate issue that needs to be handled deftly. So, what is the best way to balance these two sides of your online identity?

Establish who you are as an entrepreneur. What's your point of view as a business professional? Think of a bigger story--a broader perspective--that represents who you are. That perspective can help you discern what to share and what conversations to participate in on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and the rest. It can also guide your efforts to share a bit of yourself beyond what your business does, and give your followers insight into who you are (without getting too personal or political).

You might be the owner of a cupcake truck. But your bigger story could be that you are passionate about locally sourced food or community-centered activism. Or perhaps you're just an advocate of embracing the simple joys in life. It could be anything. What matters is that it's authentic.

I was excited to see Warren Buffett join Twitter last May. But aside from announcing his presence ("Warren is in the house") and giving a shout-out to @HillaryClinton, he has kept mum. That's a lost opportunity, because Buffett clearly has a compelling point of view to share.

Someone who does this right: my friend Dharmesh Shah, co-founder and CTO of HubSpot in Cambridge, Mass. His broader perspective--his bigger story--is his passion for startups, especially those in the software sector. The things he shares on social channels concern his own business, certainly, but they also revolve around advice and resources to help startups succeed.

Share the why, not just the what. Social sites are often condemned for providing a platform for banal and useless noise like "Eating a burrito for lunch." But they provide rich opportunity to share updates that offer more context or reveal more character. So rather than posting "Spent the day reading" (boring), try "Spent the day reading David Sedaris' new book. Unplugging after last week's big shipment!" (This has context and gives a sense of your character.)

Don't be sales-y in your sharing. Notice how my example didn't say, "Spent the day reading David Sedaris' new book. Unplugging after last week's big shipment! Order today:" That's not social sharing--that's a social pitch-slap. Remember, you're building relationships, not running a direct-marketing channel. Lead with your expertise and personality. Share or solve--don't just pitch whatever it is you sell.

Personalized, but not personal. Social platforms do represent an opportunity to show more of the individuals behind a brand. But there's a fine line between sharing yourself and sharing a little too much of yourself.

Think of personalizing your brand, not getting personal. The former means showing that you're a real human being, with actual blood flowing through actual veins. You have a point of view, a personality. The latter is sharing details that are intimate or too specific to you to have relevance for the larger community you are trying to build.

Exactly where that line is varies according to your own brand and that of your company. But to give a broad example: It's one thing to mention feeling under the weather--that's personalized. It's another to say you have an irritating rash in a sensitive spot. (Celebrities often cross this line. Who knew so many of them are chronic farters?)

Be cautious with automation. There are many tools that can help manage and scale your social presence. IFTTT (If This Then That) automates tasks such as auto-saving Instagram photos to Dropbox or creating a Facebook update when you check in on Foursquare. SocialOomph can schedule tweets or auto-follow those who follow you; can help you schedule and auto-post to several platforms at once. For growing companies, these can be handy timesavers.

But a word of caution: Don't rely too heavily on automation tools as social shortcuts. Use them to extend and ease your efforts, not supplant them. For example, robo-sending automated direct messages to greet each new Twitter follower is annoying. (Do you do it? Stop.) If your followers sense that you are phoning it in, you'll damage the credibility you are trying to build. What's more, these practices run counter to the spirit of social networking--which is, after all, inherently social. In social media (and in life, I suppose), true engagement trumps technology.

Ann Handley

Written By

Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs and the co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules (Wiley, 2012)