Brand Or Be Branded

Career Truth #1: Brand Or Be Branded


Several people have told me lately they don’t care about their online career identity. This is what they think…

“I should be able to do what I want.”

“My life shouldn’t be judged by employers based on what they see on the web.”

I say this: brand or be branded. You can either make sure people “hear what they see” in a way that boosts your credibility. Or, you can ignore your online presence and be seen as A) non-existent and unimportant, or perhaps even worse, B) the Dennis Rodman of the Net.

Trust Me, You’re Going To Want To Read This Story!

A little while back, a young woman reached out to me, supposedly “desperate” about her job search. Having graduated college last spring without landing a single interview, she claimed to have ‘tried everything’ and was sure she was doing something wrong. I looked at her resume, which had some things that could be improved, but her academic achievements were solid and in a specialized field.

Then, I checked her cover letter. It was pretty standard, but not bad. This made me wonder if her online identity was the issue. So, I decided to complete an Internet search on her – just as four out of five hiring managers do today. I put in her name and the school she graduated from. What popped up in the results shed some light. The number one item in the results was her Facebook picture. It was a blurry photo of her in a sweatshirt and her eyes were closed. Okay, so it was nothing terrible, but it also wasn’t a powerful first impression.

What Followed Was Much Worse…

You see, her Facebook photo also happened to be the ONLY thing that popped up about her. Nothing related to school, nothing related to volunteering, nothing related to her field of study… absolutely nothing. In fact, the next 10 entries thereafter were for someone with the same name but different middle initial who currently writes a very open and direct blog about an alternative lifestyle subject.

Now, is it frustrating to think she might actually be getting discriminated against because of an online search? Of course! This recent grad doesn’t have a lot of experience, which means her career identity is being branded as sub-par (and maybe even misinterpreted) from lack of solid professional online content. Yet, that doesn’t mean a person with this problem should sit in the sandbox and pound their fists. Any person, at any age, at any time in their career can build a strong online career identity.

The reality is that you only need 5-6 good things to come up in a search, so the top fold (the uppermost portion of the computer screen that shows the top search results) is filled with positive items about you. Why? Because people rarely, if ever, bother to scroll down or click on the next page of a search. They usually assume what is in the top fold is the most relevant.

So, how do you create and/or improve your online career identity?

Step 1: Identify Your Brand’s Keywords

Do a search on yourself and see what comes up. You may find someone with your name has coveted the top fold. From there, identify what keywords you can use to differentiate yourself from this person. Should you be using your full name? Your middle initial? Your affiliation with an organization or a type of work? Figure out how you want people to find you so you can build your brand around these keywords.

Step 2: Become A Blog Reader & Commenter

Begin reading career-related content on blogs for 10 minutes daily. This will help you stay-up-to date and in-the-know. Then, start posting thoughtful, well-written, professional comments on these blogs related to your field of interest. Don’t know where to find these blogs?

Go to – they are like a magazine rack of online blogs. There, you’ll be able to find dozens of blogs related to your career aspirations so that you can post comments to enhance your credibility as a knowledgeable member of your field/industry. Better still, if you are reading this, you are on a blog RIGHT NOW. So, take two extra minutes to post a comment and you’ll be on your way.

Step 3: Ask To Guest Post & Become A Subject-Matter Expert

Once you’ve got commenting down, it’s time to consider writing a guest blog post on a subject related to your career. After you’ve become a regular commenter on a particular site and feel you relate to their readership, contact them and ask if they would accept a guest post from you. Give them an overview of the topic you would write about. If they are interested, you can write the whole article, submit it, and voila – you are a published author on the Net.

Step 4: Get Your Twitter Brand Up And Running

Finally, get a Twitter account and learn the three key phases for leveraging its power for your career. Twittering is micro-blogging. Better still, it’s like instant messaging for professionals. It is an easy, fast way to connect with hundreds of like-minded people in a short period of time. You can be connected to 1,000’s of people in a matter of weeks. Better still, you can “tweet” to them which a hiring manager can read if they do a search on your Twitter account name. So, it’s like inviting an employer to see what you are like to converse with. A great way to brand yourself!

Does this sound like too much work? It’s really not, I promise. But, even if it does take a little effort, it’s worth it.

Here’s An Example:

One of our interns joined the marines and was deployed in Iraq. He did this so he could pay for college. When he came back to the university, he was contacted by a student who wanted to write a story about his experience. He’s an extremely humble person, but agreed to do the interview. The story posted online and it is an incredible look at what life is like there.

Now, he never told myself or the rest of our team about this. Actually, with his permission, I was the one that shared this online story with his fellow interns; many of whom have become friends with him in the last year and didn’t even know he served in the war.

So, how did I know?

As his potential employer, I looked him up. You can imagine how much his credibility went up in my mind when I saw and read the story. And, since joining our internship, he’s also begun blogging. At this point, he has a pretty incredible top fold – and he’s only a junior!

In summary, it’s like I said… brand or be branded.

Why risk having a lack of any career identity or a bad online presence just because you didn’t take control of the situation? Yes, getting your top fold to look good takes a little effort, but it can provide an incredible return on your time and energy investment.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

J.T. O'Donnell

Job Search & Career Expert. Syndicated Speaker & Author. Wife. Mother. CEO of CAREEREALISM Media. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.


  1. Natalie M Perez Rivera

    This is great! A very helpful article of what we, as college students, should do to be more recognizable when it comes to getting a job or even just getting an interview. I also did an internship this summer, most of the things that I learned I should publish for other students to see and get interested in. I would highly recommend doing an internship. I look forward to start branding myself more often.

  2. Thanks for the tips, certainly an eye opener. I have always been focused on building a corporate brand for my employer while remaining in the shadows but now I realize I certainly need to develop my digital personal brand for sure!

  3. I beg to differ JT, you have your point but why one should be rejected on his/her Facebook profile or photo…this is just unacceptable. Don’t want to work for any company who do not respect my personal life and does not give me enough space to be myself. A real firm will hire a real talent irrelevant of my web identity…I can improve my skills but cant change my identity…

  4. WIth social media becoming the norm it is very important to not only present yourself as professional in person but on the media as well. I use facebook and linked-in to review even candidates for summer internships.

  5. Nicolas Papachristodoulou

    Dear Mrs O’Donnell,

    Does publishing your research at scientific journals count as equally good as publishing at blogs? I am not sure how to make it appear on the first page of a search.

  6. Thank you for this article! I am passing this on to my children as well. I have been trying to be sure they understand how fast negative things posted on-line can affect them as well. This will also be an additional push for me to get signed up and use Twitter

  7. Thanks for covering this topic. As a transitioning military serviceman, I have had to build an online identity to help market myself to potential employers. Additionally, I would like to think it also adds to individual branding and credibility. I consider it free advertising as long as it’s positive.

  8. Thank you for posting this! The days of separating your personal life and professional life are long gone now that they are both fully available online. Many people are very open to including their co-workers and even their bosses be part of all of their social networks while continually posting their weekend antics of drinking, partying and even badmouthing their current job. We must be very careful about what we put out there about ourselves as it is permanent.

    • If I cant enjoy my personal life and keep worried that this will spoil me professional rapport and plus all I have to to be someone else in order to look professionally suitable on net then this sort of professional life is just not worth it…

  9. Wow! J.T , this articles is well written, and your observations very perfect. I appreciate your efforts and candid advice to us your fans on LinkedIn. The above reasons are why I always read almost all your updates. Thank you ..

  10. Reading this brought me a lot of insight into what I look like on the Web. Of course, before this article even said to look yourself up, that was the first thing I did. I did not find anything inappropriate or anything of that nature which is good, but I also found nothing that put me above others also looking for jobs. I am going to take the tips in this article and really try to put in an effort to start blogging, and maybe reactivate my Twitter account. Thanks for the advice.

  11. Excellent advice!! As a former Allied Health Instructor and Manager of over 120 Phlebotomists, Leads, and Supervisors, I can affirm this to be VERY good advice, take it and spread the word…

  12. Thanks for every other excellent article. The place else may just anyone get that type of information in such an ideal means of writing? I’ve a presentation subsequent week, and I’m on the look for such info.

  13. Such an interesting article, I am at the moment studying for a Diploma in Interior Design and will be looking for work experience, I will definitely get myself “out there.” Thanks for the great advice!!!

  14. Very informative article. One important thing to remember that a lot of people seem to forget is that content posted on the Internet is permanent and available to the whole world.

  15. I 100% agree!  I’ve read a million different blogs and articles on personal branding, but I think you really hit the mark here.  I really like that you explain that no brand is a bad brand and give ways to build an online presence.   I teach a career development course where many of my students come from the clinical or more technical fields and believe they’ll never need an online presence. I, like you, couldn’t disagree more! 

  16. Kim Douglas Hiltunen

    I’m reminded of a couple acquaintances who are oblivious to the impact of their postings.  One desires professional advancements in IT, but doesn’t see how his obscene rants in every available forum contribute to his stagnation.  The other desires business and political dominance; but he doesn’t see the incongruity of such serious quests with his bare-chested Facebook profile photo.  So it’s my hope that these two and others of similar self-importance take heed of your advice and become better self-monitors online.

  17. Thanks for the article, J.T.! As a future PR hopeful there was an abundance of information that I can use to my benefit.

    I have been thinking of engaging with the online environment for some time but wasn’t sure where to start. Now I have a direction.

  18. All true, but somewhat sad nevertheless.  In the same sense that hiring managers and personnel directors are now hiding behind an online application process.

  19. It amazes me how many people don’t know this and think that branding is irrelevant. It’s not only important, but crucial. Especially when so many people are looking for jobs, there’s a harder time making someone stand out and someone who can sell their brand to a potential employer is much farther ahead of someone who doesn’t know what they’re all about. And it’s just generally more professional.

  20. J.T.,

    Very true! Whether you choose to manage it or not, your personal brand is out there. These are all great tips for improving what employers see about you online. Getting out there is really important. Having no presence online is almost as bad as having a very negative presence.

  21. Ms. O Donnell,

    I completely agree with your article/blog and recommend this as a must read to anyone looking for work, opportunities and/or challenges.

  22. This reminds me of sage advice I once heard, “never send anything in an email that you wouldn’t want in your personnel file.” The reverse can be said for your online branding: Only post things online that you’d want a potential employer to see.” Don’t fabricate stuff, but think about how every post will add to, or detract from, the professional image you’re building. Be in control of your message!

  23. Very helpful article and I am already following careerealism on twitter. Here is my question, if you are in one business (real estate) but are looking to move into a field you have worked in before (science related field), do I put it out there on Facebook and Twitter? I have put on LinkedIn that I am looking for jobs and changed that profile. However I don't want to deter any real estate business that comes my way. I have thought about setting up a new twitter account. Any tips would be appreciated.

  24. Very helpful article and I am already following careerealism on twitter. Here is my question, if you are in one business (real estate) but are looking to move into a field you have worked in before (science related field), do I put it out there on Facebook and Twitter? I have put on LinkedIn that I am looking for jobs and changed that profile. However I don't want to deter any real estate business that comes my way. I have thought about setting up a new twitter account. Any tips would be appreciated.

  25. Great article. I think recent graduates and professionals with all levels of experience need to be cognizant of their online presence. Many job seekers don't think about the damage their online presence could have on their job search, and in the age of social media this could, indeed, play a large role in securing a job opportunity. One of our clients here at LaSalle Network actually rescinded an offer to a candidate because of a picture on their Facebok profile! Employers are looking at this, so make sure they don't find anything you wouldn't want your grandmother to see or read!

    Megan Gentille, LaSalle Network

  26. Thank you for this great article! I run a faith-based job search support group and the information you provided here will be valuable not only to our Job Seekers but I find it useful as well. I've found that so many articles and webinars and the endless stream of content put out by communications associations on the subject of social media and building an online brand is too abstract, theoretical and even too shallow to truly move one in the right direction. It all sounds great, but what do I do? This lays it out wonderfully. Thank you.

  27. Oh I love this article!

    I run a volunteer networking site for professionals in transition and now I feel like I need to be come a blog subject matter expert! Thanks! I’m so happy I found you on Twitter.

  28. I found thes articles very interesting. Great advise. One problem, I am on twitter but only unwelcomed hits, have been in this city15 months and do not really know anyone. Not sure what else to put on twitter, communitycoordin

    • Hi Carol!

      Think of your twitter feed as your own personal newspaper and you are the editor. Fill it with all the things you feel are relevant to your career/industry/desired job. This is a way to show readers what you are about on a professional level. Slowly, you'll tweak the feed to attract the audience you desire. You'll know you are getting it right when your 'headlines' a.k.a. your tweets are getting RT(retweed). Most importantly, don't give up. It takes time to build up a following, but once you do it grows like a snowball in a blizzard!

  29. Some wonderful advice and insights here. It's true that the whole idea of “branding” leaves a lot of people cold but it's there, it's real, it's not going to go away, and we have to deal with it. The Internet has greatly extended the reach of our reputations (which is all branding is, really) and we pretty much HAVE to make it work in our favor, rather than the other way around.

    Those were good tips for how to build an online presence. Nothing too overwhelming or time-consuming! Thanks for these.

  30. Read this article last night it was a great read. I ended up googleing myself this morning. It is so true though that employers will do a name search on you and what comes up may affect you getting the job. That is just how it is today. I am also starting to really get into the blog commenting and will start setting aside a few minutes a day to comment on blogs I read.

  31. Totally love & agree with this blog. I am lucky enough I am the ONLY Makenzie Marineau (at least that I am aware of ! )so when I am googled all my articles I have wrote for my school newspaper pop up along with my twitter, Facebook and blog etc. As a web nerd myself I constantly promote using the internet to endorse yourself when searching for a job. I believe social media is a great tool to put yourself out in the front running. I just recently whipped up a quick blog post myself on the benefits of using social media in searching for a job. Again love the great advice

  32. Do you have any advice for someone with a very common name and whose name is also the same as a much-photographed celebrity? I wouldn't complain if people confused me with the other Jessi or Jessica Millers of the world, we all seem to be quite talented, but there are a lot of false positives there, and I wonder if that would hurt my chances.

  33. As someone who hires many people, you are absolutely right, online identities are checked.

    Perhaps another post elaborating on 10 things to put in your online identity might help? People need to know what to do.

  34. Excellent article! I have repeatedly warned job seekers (both college students and seasoned pro's) to be very careful about those “social sites” like Facebook and MySpace. Often I hear from students saying they are outraged that a potential employer wouldn't hire them because of pictures or content on their page. I have told them that those pages are public domain, free for anyone to peruse at any time. One of the first places hiring managers go is to the internet to pull up your name. If you find someone who has your first and last name, as I did, you need to distinguish yourself, perhaps using your full middle name.

    Blogging can be tricky too. On some networking sites I've seen people unload details about their former company, co-workers and anger over how they were fired. Not good people! That will be held against you.
    This can come back to bite you in the form of a lawsuit too, so be very careful out there in cyberland. Speaking of being careful, never post your resume with your full address, leave off the street name and number.

    Face-to-face networking is key, besides online. Always have your resume and business card handy. Give friends and family both to carry to work or to others they know in your industry focus. By the same token, don't forget to do the same for others. When you reciprocate, you will be remembered. If you choose to just be in it for yourself, you will find others not willing to assist you in the end.

  35. Jamie M Holdcraft

    This article is so TRUE! You can continue doing what you have always done and you will get what you have always gotten (definition of insanity!). You can stay like a turtle and keep you head in your little (world) shell and learn absolutely nothing new OR you can pop that head out and see what the world of social media has to offer you and your business.

    I have CHOSEN to venture out into the wide world of online “risk” and take the road that is unknown & less traveled. I have seen an increase in my business, and better yet if others Google my name only they can find all the info on my business that I would like them to be able to find. MY doors have been opened up to a completely NEW group of people ~clients AND Friends alike!

    Social Media = more exposure, more people to help & essentially more doors open to the world of business

  36. True, pictures can be controversial. Limit the type of pictures you have online. Take pictures from volunteering efforts, work events and other images that attest to your credibility as a professional.
    I had a great picture of me at a fundraiser I put on and made sure I was front and center however now when I Google it I can't find it! I'm going to track it down though and put it on my online portfolio. I'm sure it spoke a thousand words. I should have kept better track of it.

  37. Great article. There are a lot of people who are dragging their feet. Mostly traditional media and people from the ages of 40+. Whether it is personal or professional brand you need to adapt. It has leveled the playing field, so to speak, between small business owners who get in early and bigger competitors who feel that their brand will be their savior rather than content. There is a delicate balance between content and brand in this regard. I am still amazed by the “smart” people running businesses who refuse to implement online marketing identities outside of the normal channels.

  38. Self branding is such an important part of having a career and, unfortunately, a lot of people don't pay it the attention it deserves. I've made a habit of googling myself every month or so to make sure that I am all for the top fold and that my public profiles only have public information posted on them.

  39. Thanks for posting this information. I'd done searches of just my name before and it there's a Katie that's made quite a name for herself. It was a relief to see that when I search Kate Rees, Ferris State University many positive, career related items appeared, 8 of 10 items were mine! To further develop a positive online presence I will begin commenting on blogs I read and work on regularly contributing to my own!

  40. I googled my own name, and I found some interesting things that are online about me. For example, there is a church bulletin from Lindenwood in Memphis, TN with my name in it. My parents' friends attended that church, and I would sometimes attend with their daughter (my friend). It is strange to see something that I was not a big part of on the internet.

    In seeing that I agree that I should take more steps to get my name in the “top folds” of a google search. I have a lot from twitter, my work on the Clemson yearbook, and a quote from me in an article. But there is definitely more to me than that. I feel I have accomplished so much more, and I would like to display that to viewers.

    I had a blog back in high school, that I eventually deleted because it seemed pointless. But now that I am about to graduate from Clemson University, I see how necessary blogs can be. Usually when I think of blogs, I think of ones such as Perez, but I also see how big it is. It not only is a way to get your ideas and feelings out, but it is also a great way to get your name out there in the career world and show them what makes you who you are. I feel like it used to be what you could fit on a resume, but now it is clear that your online presence is key.

  41. Type your comment here

    As a “50 something” self-employed professional, I am finding it hard to step into this new world of instant identity and per-conceived notions. I often thought it must be rough to be in the media, entertainment or politics because your life is never your own – you belong to the fans, the antagonists and the paparazzi. Now the average Joe is in the same boat. I have built my life and my career on personal integrity and one on one relationships and this is all quite tough to take.

    My question would be, once you are “there” on the internet. Are you there forever? If someone ever writes something derogatory, can your name ever be redeemed? We used to watch out for “big brother” now do we all shrink from ever voicing an opinion for fear that we may create a ripple that becomes a wave related to our good name that NEVER goes away???

    All of this is hypothetical but one wonders that if we all seek to have a positive “on-line image” what happens if we step on someone's toes somewhere… are we ever after unemployable?

    This might make me go back to mailing letters…

    • Dayna, I couldn't agree more. I was sitting with some HR friends lately and said, “Wow, I'm glad the internet was around early in my career.” There is a lot of discussion around whether this is temporary in the sense that eventually we just won't care about what's on the internet because there will be so much junk. However, I always look at the entertainment industry to see the trend for the average Joe. I think we are all going to have to pay more attention to our images and be ready to put a plan in place when a blunder causes a stir. In some ways, I think this is good. We can take our cues from those who have been effective at being successful but have also managed to keep a low and/or positive profile.

      I think you have given me an idea for another post. We could choose celebrities who have done the best job at creating a good brand and identify what they've done right! Got any suggestions of celebs that have done it right?

      Best wishes in your career. My advice, do the online branding basics (we call it professional hygiene) and make sure your accounts are updated and that you regularly contribute. Trust me, it's worth it!

  42. J.T. you hit the nail on the head. I truly believe today's professional falls into one of the following 3 career categories:

    1. gainfully employed and love their work
    2. gainfully employed BUT would jump ship ASAP
    3. unemployed

    Bottom line it doesn't matter which category you fall under you better have built or be building a personal / professional brand. Having a brand can keep you from being that statistical pink slip or land you that sought after job but in today's economically confused environment if you land on #3 without a brand you are going to have a very long road ahead of you.

    • Well said, Thomas!

      Sadly, the statistics show that over (brace yourself) 70% of employees fall in to the latter two. And that study is from several years ago. So, we could assume it's up in the 90's now.

      I think the silver lining (if you can call it that) to this economy is how it will teach people the value of brand awareness.

      As you say best, “It's not who you know… it's who knows YOU!”

      Thanks for commenting!

      • I'd go even further: It's not who you know … it's who knows you … and who THEY know. Networking is not about asking for a job, it's about asking for help meeting people – lots of different people – who can help you reach your career goals. Ultimately, these people will help you discover interesting opportunities that probably have not been advertised yet. This process results in: less competition + personal recommendation = career success.

  43. As an employer, I have often “googled” prospective employees to gain some insight into the type of person they were. I will admit that most often, this information did not deter me from hiring the person, although I do agree that branding is exremely important. As a matter of fact, I just wrote a blog today about branding (in which I reference careerealism) about blogging and how important having a brand is. I think more people need to realize that what is out there displayed for the public to see, can and will be used against you.

  44. As an employer, I have often “googled” prospective employees to gain some insight into the type of person they were. I will admit that most often, this information did not deter me from hiring the person, although I do agree that branding is exremely important. As a matter of fact, I just wrote a blog today about branding (in which I reference careerealism) about blogging and how important having a brand is. I think more people need to realize that what is out there displayed for the public to see, can and will be used against you.

  45. Something I just can't understand is when it comes to job hunting and the Internet, why does anybody post a picture of themselves online?

    Frequently we are told to NOT send a picture with a resume. We have heard horror stories that an employer got a picture of somebody who looked either
    too old / too young,
    too skinny / too fat,
    too rich looking / too poor,
    too liberal with the earring / too conservative with the tie.

    We have also heard that employers can and will make subtle judgements based on a person's name, thinking they're of a certain race or nationality.

    This story speaks of an embarassing picture of someone in a sweatshirt with her eyes closed. Why post a picture of any kind of what you look like, knowing biases exist in the mind of potential employers?

    You could say you wouldn't want to work for such a narrow-minded employer. Then again, you can only say that for so long before you need an income.

    • Dear QuestingElf,

      Finding the right job is very much like dating (minus the intimate parts…). Would you contact someone on a dating site that is too (fill in the blank: embarrassed, shy, suspicious) to post a nice photo of themselves? If someone does not have a photo posted on a social media platform, it makes me think they have something to hide. And that they themselves are not comfortable and secure in how they look to the world. Conversely, if I do see a photo – which doesn't have to be a professional head-shot – I know this person won't have any hang-ups about their appearance.

      Yes, of course appearance matters; but confidence and poise matter more.

      • Like QuestingElf, I have always been advised to err on the side of caution when it came to putting too much information about myself on the Internet — and this includes pictures. I would think that employers would be more concerned about a potential employee’s background, as opposed to what he/she looks like. I respectfully disagree with the perspective that someone without a photo likely has something to hide. Further, these remarks suggest that someone who does not have a picture posted must lack confidence, thereby preventing him/her from adequately performing the functions of a position, which I do not feel is necessarily true. Frankly, I would rather see no picture whatsoever, as opposed to one that is in poor taste. Of course, this is just my opinion…

  46. Job applicants have to be very careful about what type of pictures/information is on the internet. It is true that employers type your name into a Google search and take a look at the first few things that come up. This could make or break your opportunity to get a job.

    To check, simply type your full name and your college/university (ex. Joe Smith UMASS) into a Google search and see what comes up. If it is something that you don't think should be on there, then GET RID OF IT! You are only doing yourself a favor.

    Take the time to do it now. Don't wait until it is too late.

  47. My top three results on Google for my name & school are my LinkedIn profile, Twitter account, and a bio from a company that I consulted for.

    My boyfriend, an aspiring TV sports reporter, asked me about two weekend ago if I knew about “how to get linked in??” He continues to be skeptical of Twitter (and I have to show him how to use it for more than just, 'not working today…'), but he absolutely loves the connective power of LinkedIn. I also showed my mom LinkedIn about two years ago, when I first got it, and Twitter. She always feels to great, like she's in-the-know, when she goes to business meetings where they talk about the power of these tools.

    I totally agree that in today's job market, especially for those who are actively searching, if you don't control the message that is out there about you, someone else will.

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