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Social Media Identity: Personal vs. Professional


I recently had to engage social media not using my personal identity, but under my professional identity. A bit clueless how to proceed, I sent this out on Twitter:

Facing an interesting decision about mixing my personal and professional online personas. I think I need to establish a “professional” ID.

Brian McCartney brought up a great point in response:

A “professional” ID is a good idea but there are things on my personal ID that I might want to share with the professional world…

Which got me wondering about social media identity. By that, I really mean these three things:

  • What subjects do you cover
  • What “voice” do you use
  • How does your social network perceive you

When it comes to developing professional identity in social media, a key consideration is the size of your company.

Company Size and Social Media Identities

The graph below depicts where the professional and personal identities diverge.

The idea in the above chart is that the smaller the company, the more closely your personal and professional identities are tied. As the company size increases, the more separate your identities become.

Where can these identities come into play?

  • Blogging
  • Posting on blogs
  • Twittering
  • FriendFeed
  • Etc.

Entrepreneurs and Small Companies

For entrepreneurs, your social media interactions are your marketing. How you think. What you care about. What insights you can deliver. And employees of small companies are the company. So their identities are very closely tied to the company.

Sam Lawrence, CMO of Jive Software, is a good example of someone blurring professional and personal identities. Here are his social media identities:

  • Twitter: Sam mixes a heavy dose of Jive-related tweets with interesting tweets on other subjects. He ain’t afraid to keep it real out on Twitter.
  • Go Big Always: This is his personal blog, covering the social and enterprise software market. Jive gets plenty of attention, but it’s not the focus of every post.
  • JiveTalks: The official company blog. Sam can be found here, and the posts are product-related.

Here’s what Sam said about his multiple social media identities:

Up until now, I’ve been blogging on JiveTalks. But a corporate blog is just that – a corporate blog. I wanted to have a place where I could more freely voice wider observations and thoughts beyond Social Productivity and Jive’s business.

That being said, you get Sam, you get Jive Software.

Big Corporates

Employees working for larger companies will tend to have separate professional and personal social media identities. It’s tempting to say there’s the the “authentic” you and the “corporate” you. I think that oversimplifies things. The work you do is part of your authentic identity – if it wasn’t, presumably you’d quit the job.

But there are important differences when it comes to your professional identity. Here are a few that apply when using social media on behalf of a large corporate:

  • You write about things that are part of your identity only while you work for the company
  • You have to err on the side of “corporatism”, with language consistent with that of your company
  • Your company’s stuff is great, all competition sucks (of course, this applies for entrepreneurs as well!)
  • You’re likely in “sell” mode

The separation between personal identity and professional identity is the greatest for employees of large corporates. Whereas Sam Lawrence’s social media identity is very much a personal and professional combination, I decided to create a second identity for engaging social media professionally. My handle became Hutch@[company name]. You see that, you know I’m doing things on behalf of my company.

Final Thoughts

There’s a notion that someday all of our social media identities will be blurred. “Your personal identity is your professional identity in Web 2.0.” If we’re talking “professional” in terms of your career and talents you can bring to a company, then yes, that statement is true regardless of where you work.

However, if “professional” is the identity you assume on behalf of your company, then that statement really only applies to employees of small companies. For employees of big corporates, managing your social media identities is more complex than that.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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About Hutch Carpenter
Senior Consultant for HYPE Innovation (hypeinnovation.com)

23 Responses to Social Media Identity: Personal vs. Professional

  1. I think it is very hard to separate your personal persona from your professional persona. As you point out, they are not mutually exclusive. You can be personal and professional at the same time.

    In fact, since everything is findable in the Web2.0, including by your co-workers and boss, you should always be professional.

    In some sites you can be more free-wheeling and in other sites you should be more buttoned-down. I think having two separate personas will only get you in trouble.

    I agree that you should not use your work email or company name. After-all what happens if you leave that job, all that activity and goodwill goes away.

  2. bhc3 says:

    @Doug – great thoughts. I understand your point about findability. If I know you’re an employee of a company and I find your personal posts elsewhere, what does that say about the company?

    But I really do think they’re separate worlds in most cases. I come at this from the online persona perspective – what do readers think about when they see your name out there? Are you the guy giving straight talk about the strengths and weaknesses of an app? Or the guy trying to convince me to buy your product?

    I also was coming from the position of having established a personal identity (e.g. through this blog), then having to graft on a separate identity for work.

    The word “professional” has several meanings. The one to which you allude is not so much the skills you possess or things you do on behalf of your company, but the way you conduct yourself with others. I agree that you should be professional, with some latitude for self-expression.

    BTW – I’ve been a subscriber to your blog for a while. Really enjoy it!

  3. Sam Lawrence says:

    I’m honored you included me in this post. It’s really interesting. I can see truth in the need to peel away personal/work identities the larger you become. I think we’ve yet to see a company go through the whole maturation process but my hope is that the right side of the grid can be less distanced and, more importantly, that the honesty of voice and interaction with the community doesn’t whitewash.

    Great stuff.

  4. Totally agree. I work on a Corporate Twitter, but I don’t feel I can tweet a lot of things though it. Instead, I have my personal twitter which I use to contact friends and tweet what I am doing. The issue is a lot of my time is spend just monitoring the Company Twitter and this is where I have connected a lot of interesting people. I think the policy of name@companyname as the Twitter account is really good and I think I might eventually follow this. Richard Hirsch’s post on this (http://tappingintothecornucopia.blogspot.com/2008/03/what-corporations-should-not-do-on.html)
    is really interesting. He talks about individuals “individuals impersonating the corporation”. In some ways I think this is true, but then who should twitter on a corporate level, or should anyone? Should it just be name@companyname always, as opposed to companyname on Twitter?

  5. Part of the splitting of personal and professional is deciding which to use in which venue. As Sam pointed out he has two separate blogs, each with a different voice and probably different audiences.

    I have a split since I have two roles: knowledge management attorney and real estate attorney. As a result I have two separate blogs. My first thought was to combine them together (the “space” in KM Space derives from the real estate side).

    I found it confusing to have the two different sides with really two different audiences.

    But common social sites like facebook, it is just me and different facets come out. But I get to control that audience.

    As for twitter, I would find it confusing to have different accounts. I think you just have to “keep it real” in twitter. It short doses that do less damage, but keep it professional.

  6. Jen Robinson says:

    Great analysis, Hutch. I work for a big company, but I have tended toward the model you describe for entrepreneurs and small businesses. A few reasons for this approach:

    1. Employees who discuss their work through less-corporate channels like twitter have the opportunity to demonstrate their companies’ thought leadership in the industry. Of course, obvious risks abound, but I trust myself to be responsible and represent well.

    2. Through my blended persona, I’ve established relationships with industry peers that benefit my work. These conversations frequently start on a personal note, like “hey, i love that song you posted on your tumblog.”

    3. It’s just not straightforward to split my personal and professional identities, as you point out. A lot of my personal contacts, eg. friends from college and business school, also work in the industry. Etc., etc.

    This is a hot topic for my team at work. They’ll love your chart.

  7. bhc3 says:

    @Sam – I am looking forward to a true integration of the personal and the professional. As Jive grows, you’ve set the foundation for that. It will be hard for the established, decades-old companies to think this way.

  8. bhc3 says:

    @Richard – really interesting thought about whether to include name@companyname or just companyname. My initial reaction is that just using companyname immediately devalues any comments there. Readers will think, “oh, that’s the PR-pumping identity”.

    Part of the problem is that just the company name by itself brings existing brand into it. and the existing brand may have no ‘cred’ in social media. There are companies that probably would have credibility immediately – e-tailer Kartmaloop might have that, for instance.

    Thanks for that link – really good thinking there.

  9. bhc3 says:

    @Doug – you hit on something important there. You develop a following in social media, one that comes to expect certain information and opinion from you. Knowledge management and real estate are so different that it’d be hard to reconcile your audiences.

    A good post about the relationship bloggers establish with their audiences is here:

    http://marketingmystic.typepad.com/marketing_mystic/

  10. bhc3 says:

    @Jen – some really good points there. Point #1: “Of course, obvious risks abound, but I trust myself to be responsible and represent well.” That is something the big companies probably have the hardest time with. Here’s one blogger’s quote about Yahoo, of all companies (http://tinyurl.com/5bcmn7):

    “She has a new gig, which I’m sure she’ll blog about once things settle down. Especially now that it looks like she doesn’t have a management structure that considered even personal blogging against their personal standards (her old management had a bad case of “I don’t care what yahoo’s policy is… this is my policy”)”

    Also, getting out of straight “sell” mode is key to establishing a more credible professional social media identity.

  11. Natalie Hanson says:

    Hi Hutch, thought provoking post on a interesting topic, thanks!

    This has definitely been on my mind as I further develop an online presence for myself. I also like what Doug has to say, as I do believe that each ‘channel’ we’re operating in has different and changing rules about what is appropriate, and we’re learning as we go.

    I work in a big corporation, but I have somewhat of a unique personal brand as the lone anthropologist. For me, that identity is part of my unique value proposition. My challenge, then, is to operate at both ends of your spectrum simultaneously – working in a large corporate context while not losing sight of what makes me unique for outside projects, consulting work, etc. I think that may be a slightly different set of issues than someone who tweets on their company’s behalf … but maybe not. One of the ways that I’ve looked at this in my own research is through the notion of branding. In 1997, Tom Peters wrote an article entitled The Brand Called You (http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/10/brandyou.html), in which he argues that individuals have to retain a sense of themselves and their own brand, since that brand is what remains constant as alliances and companies change. All that said, I think that the variables which affect your public versus private decisions is likely more complex than the size of the company you work in, though I would agree with you that the balancing act is more complex as you have more identities and interests to juggle.

  12. Mia says:

    Hi Hutch,
    This is a brilliant post! Thanks for including me in the conversation :) I really like your ‘evolution’ chart. You’re absolutely right on.
    In startups, if you’re the entrepreneur, your personal brand defines the company culture, so the lines are blurred. If you’re the CEO of a large corporation, it’s hard to keep anything ‘personal’.
    I work for a large corporation and I never blog about (or mention) my employer because a) it’s my personal blog and 2) there are obvious liability issues. So I prefer to keep my professional and personal identities separate.
    I think your decision should be guided by size of your company, your role in that company, and most importantly, your objective for going ‘social’.
    You can leverage social sites to evangelize your company/product or to connect with friends. Your intent should drive your decision on which identity to use and when.

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  14. bhc3 says:

    @Natalie – great comments there. You note at the end that the factors affecting professional vs. personal online personas are more complex than company size. I agree. Industry type comes to mind as a another factor. Sectors that have much more of a human face to them – consulting, advertising – seems ideal for a closer blend of identities. Company culture is important – I’m sure there are small companies where employees wouldn’t feel comfortable mixing their social media identities.

    Probably a good subject for an anthropologist…

  15. bhc3 says:

    @Mia – Good to hear I’m not alone on this thought. I like your notion of asking, “what’s you objective for going ‘social’?” Thinking through that answer helps figure who you will “be” when you engage online.

  16. Sahil Parikh says:

    Im a small business owner myself and i completely agree with you there.

    I also have something to add that might aid some insight – “This ‘new’ Internet is more about concept than definition. It is about freedom of expression, it is about horizontal innovation, it is about openness and it is about exchange of information, and more than anything else it is about the respect of individuals who are also contributors.”

    Also it helps if small business owner can collaborate their personal and professional interactions and also systemize them. This can help drive synergy (with teams) and also aid goal achievement.

    For a while i have been developing a product called Deskaway . It helps companies systemize their processes by the use of various tools. Do review it if you can, check it out and let me know what you think! A version that’s free to use is available!

    Also i’d love to know your thoughts with respect to systemization of marketing across social media – and does it really help?

    Great post by the way – clearly outlines the intricacies of web 2.0 marketing. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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  20. Excellent site bhc3.wordpress.com and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here: this .. as it’s taken me literally 3 hours and 52 minutes of searching the web to find you (just kidding!) so I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor :)

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  22. Pingback: Lee Davies » Blog Archive » Personal and professional identity: dichotomy, trichotomy or multichotomous?

  23. Pingback: KU Social Media » The Merging or Separating of Professional and Personal Identities on Social Media Sites

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