How to, and not to, successfully build your social media platform

Herman Singh explains how professionals can use their social media to build their network and career.

Social media is a powerful ingredient in any situation. It acts as fuel to a reaction and can be either propulsive or explosive depending on its application. It can build careers, businesses and brands or destroy them in an instant.

The use of these services is therefore tinged with caveats and warnings for the novice. You are literally playing with fire, which is both creative and destructive, and it’s important to understand what you are doing, as well as why and how to utilise the tools appropriately to achieve that.

I have seen hundreds of examples of “egotistical leaders” trying to establish a presence on social media platforms in an attempt to become famous as a technology leader and a thought leader, or to be perceived as a digital specialist, but ending up with hilarious or dismal results.

Often firms are trying to raise the profile of their executives or new appointees, not realising that shoutouts, stories about yourself, advertorials, humble-bragging and profile stories are easily spotted, scrolled through, or ignored. This is a futile act and only works if it is authentic and sustainable. Shouting out your successes or achievements only causes you to be perceived as vain or as self-promotion.

What works better is to share thoughtful and useful insights and to both create and engage with a community of followers. That is hard work and often not what leaders want to be spending their time engaging in. There are exceptions such as Elon Musk, who has achieved that with great success, but they do tend to be the rare exceptions.

The key point with all social media, or any apps for that matter, is that they are merely tools to be applied as the name “app” or “applications” suggests. We need to consider how we apply this tool to the problem at hand. One needs to think of them in the same way that one would use a screwdriver or a hammer. Consider what is the problem, select the appropriate tool, apply it in the correct manner and address the need.

Whether it’s the need for torque or leverage, an appropriate tool will be available. Hammers play different roles to screwdrivers or pliers. The greatest messes that one can make in DIY is applying the incorrect tool to the problem at hand or using the correct tool in an inappropriate way.

Each app is different and serves a different need and audience. Different segments of the population have different needs and accordingly aggregate to the app that best serves the need in terms of functionality and community. These two components are key to the objective. A great tool with no community is quite useless. A weak tool with a great community might be more relevant but more frustrating.

If you are looking for a job, a client, a life partner, a temporary partner, a gig worker, a short-term assignment, a technical solution or even just entertainment you will naturally migrate to the most relevant app because there are killer apps for each application. There are between two to three million apps in each of the app stores, 2.4 million in the Apple store and 3.4 million in the Google Play store at time of writing, but most of us have around 50 apps on our phones and only refer to four apps at most during a coffee break. The bias is strong towards killer apps that drive our lives and move communities.

Apps like Twitter and Facebook are very broadly used for news dissemination, but increasingly more professionally based apps such as LinkedIn are driving major business opportunities. It will soon be impossible to survive as a professional without being proficient at the use of these apps.

Some are purely productivity-enhancing apps that help to get tasks tracked and done through collaboration. But many apps are for discovery or network building and can also be used for brand building. These are the apps that embody virality, community engagement, large networks, compelling content, and the ability to create communities of interest or trust as core components of what makes them attractive.

LinkedIn is a great example of this, especially for professionals. It is a publishing platform first and foremost, with a large prosumer community of individuals who are both producers and distributors of content as well as consumers of it. The ability to like, share, promote, tag and copy make the platform a compelling one for professional content and its ability to message makes it super for connecting and engaging one-on-one or in smaller focussed communities.

The content does also tend to be a lot less dependent on provocative or fake content as is the issue with several other platforms. It started out first as a jobs site, then rapidly became a business news dissemination service, and now includes learning as a key part of its value proposition. This has created a self-regulatory mechanism to call out fake or misleading information. It also has tended to steer clear of the political weaponising that has been seen on other media platforms.

Professionals need to be mindful of the impact on others through their presence on this platform. In large corporations, for example, there are many complications. The first is that it's important to emphasise that you are only sharing a personal view, then that you do not share firm insights, that you do not be seen as the firm’s mouthpiece and that you are not seen as wanting to be in the limelight. Each of these can be quite fatal to your corporate career.

Your views expressed online can, for example, be held against you in both internal disciplinary actions and can prejudice you for future roles internally or with other firms. Professional jealousy can be a serious threat, especially if you prove to be successful at this task and others who may be more senior in the organisation would frown on a junior being seen to be an influencer without the necessary internal credentials. In this sense, serious role conflict occurs between your internal and your external personas.

What is great about building up your personal profile and network is that it can, if used well, serve to greatly enhance your personal brand independently of the firm, and this is key in a world where job tenures are falling. It allows you to build up an asset that you own and can take with you for the rest of your life. This is quite unlike a job or role which is left behind when you move on. Indeed, it can be used to assist in finding your next role and to climb the corporate ladder by allowing others to find a match between your skills and their needs.

The key lessons for successful usage of the platform are to first decide why you are there. Are you job seeking or hiring, looking for customers or partners? Because each of these will drive a different usage pattern.

The next article in the series will explore a case study on a powerful application of one of these platforms and will illustrate both lessons for success and caveats for the unwary social media traveller.

This is an extract from my upcoming book “Upcycle your career”.