To Be, or Not to Be Social: Is participating in social media good for your career?

By Rebecca Caum

Businesswoman using smart phoneThe power of social media lies in its ability to deliver information with unprecedented speed to a global audience. Like most kinds of power, the inherent risks are congruent with the potential benefits. We have all figured out how to avoid the most common mistakes: set your drinks aside, don’t post your political views, and leave all things private as just that—private. But, what about using social media at work—is being social becoming as important of an asset for America’s top CEOs as reading a balance sheet? Can being social online or having a blog actually advance your career?

Firstly, CEOs and senior leaders are participating. According to a 2013 study by Weber Shandwick called The Social CEO: Executives Tell All which compiled the results from 630 professionals from all levels (managers on up the C-suite, excluding CEOs—at companies with revenues above $500 million) the results show that ‘CEO sociability’ has increased by 30% between 2010 and 2012 for a global total of 66%, and the trend is expected to keep rising.

“2013 will bring a greater focus on social reputation, be it for companies or CEOs. Companies that are truly social and engage their employees and customers in genuine conversation will be recognized as the new corporate leaders. CEOs who are social will be the next new thing.”

Leslie Gaines – Ross, Chief Reputation Strategist, Weber Shandwick

What are CEOs and leaders doing online? No real surprise that it isn’t about posting vacation photos on Facebook as the study redefines being social to include media beyond traditional sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; since these are not necessarily feasible or attractive outlets of communication for every CEO.

Some of the benefits to using a wide variety of electronic communications include; interacting on the company intranet helps improve the reputation of the workplace; using the company website shows increased credibility to customers and investors; and posting to the company’s social media sites serves the dual purpose of demonstrating innovativeness and building relationships with the media. The use of all these channels is at the top of the study’s list of 7 Habits of Highly Social CEOs. Facebook (67%), Twitter (51%), and blogs (49%) ranked as the top 3 channels used by ‘highly social CEOs’.

In fact, owning a blog is the second Habit on the list. And though the Internet is full of CEO blogs that have fallen to the wayside, there are a number of them out there worth keeping an eye on.

Successful CEO blogs can range from Mark Cuban’s Blog Maverick, a lively mix of self-promotion and intelligent observations, to the ‘all business’ approach of Martha Heller’s “Your CIO Career.” But what these blogs have in common to make them successful is that they are self-authored, personal yet professional, and have regular posts with interesting content.

Though blogging by CEOs may still be a rising trend across sectors, posting to the company’s website is recognized as “digital ground zero” for connecting with anyone who is interested in learning more about the company. This very good Habit (#3 on the list) is followed by 93% of CEOs, according to the executives surveyed.

Whether they are blogging, posting, or writing messages to their employees, Highly Social CEOs self-author their work 63% of the time (versus only 43% of CEO’s who have a basic online presence). A ghostwriter may be able to capture the CEO’s personality, but self-authorship is listed as Habit #4, and seems to be an essential part of leveraging all of the potential benefits from being social.

Many CEOs may shy away from blogging and other social activities because they feel the risks outweigh these benefits. Penny Herscher, CEO of First Rain, says that though she did consider the risks, “to her personal brand”, when beginning her blog, The Grassy Road, but she balanced those risks by defining the subjects she would write about. She primarily addresses topics related to her company and its market, leadership, and women in technology. She says that, “sometimes [she] will stray to more personal subject matter, but rarely.”

For Penny, the benefits of the blog clearly outweigh the risks. “It’s a great way for me to communicate with my employees, future employees and my community at large—specifically related to the challenges facing women in technology. I enjoy writing when I have the time to do so and I connect with new people through readers reactions to posts.” In addition, Ms. Herscher, is active on Twitter and LinkedIn, but only has a small presence on Facebook, which she finds less useful for creating professional connection.

Finally, Habits #5 (highly social CEOs are more likely to perceived as forward looking) and #7 (highly social CEOs engage a wider variety of external stakeholders), are really outcomes more than they are things to do. Nonetheless, they are noteworthy and perhaps point to some of the most important reasons for CEOs to increase their digital social skills. 68% of highly social CEOs are perceived as forward-looking and 100% of them are better at engaging a wider audience than their non-social counterparts. Whether they are aiming to connect with their employees, customers, investors or the general public, highly social CEOs are putting it out there for the world to see.

If you are not yet a CEO, but aiming that way, how best can you use social media to advance your own career?

According to a number of social media experts originally contacted by the blog, Onward Search, following these guidelines will help you stand out, on and off line.

• Loren Baker of BlueGlass Interactive, Inc. recommends learning the differences between different social media challenges, and then making an informed decision about which ones are best for your company’s goals.

• Be authentic and helpful to others. Marketing coach and Career Strategist, Tim Tyrell-Smith, emphasizes how talking to people, rather than simply seeking to spread a message, will add value to the conversations and build your social credibility.

• HubSpot’s Social Media Scientist, Dan Zarrella, urges the importance of finding a unique niche. What can you do that nobody else can? This can be a tough question to answer, but everyone has a unique set of experience that provides context for your skills. “Find the blue ocean and own it,” he says.

• David Berkowitz, VP of Emerging Media, gives some good common sense advice that may still be overlooked by many. It’s easy to spend hours cruising around social media sites, comparing yourself to the endless sea of colleagues seeking to achieve your same goal. While researching the interests of other professionals is a very important aspect of social media, Berkowitz says to get noticed, you must, “Use social media to establish your own voice and interact with professionals you find interesting. Follow, subscribe to, and respond to others. Executives active with social medial will notice who interacts with them, especially if they have something interesting to say.”

• This advice is echoed by Susan Beebe, Chief Listener at Dell, “Create your presence on social media to be found, heard and respected; otherwise, you won’t be.”