If you take a look at the top 10 Twitter users you'll see a list of famous men and women, from Justin Bieber to Selena Gomez, who have used the popular platform to further expand their personal brands. Perhaps more interesting, however, is how everyday people are investing more time and energy into social networking for professional purposes.
Just over a year ago, a local 16-year-old high school student emailed me out of the blue, proposing that he join me as a guest on a TV show I host. Winston Sih didn't send along a resume, but instead included links to his website , Twitter account , Facebook page, and three relevant YouTube clips. While there are plenty of examples of teens jeopardizing their digital reputation, with bullying and threats on friends' walls or late-night "I hate my job" tweets, Sih is a perfect example of someone who has learned how to use the web to his advantage--building a strong and positive personal brand before he even reaches his adult years (12 months into his brand-building exercise, he is already a well-known regular tech TV expert  and blogger--and he's not even out of high school yet).
While few of us will ever have the celebrity factor to drive our online networks (or a PR spin team to protect us if we post something stupid), there is a lot we can learn from Sih and other personal brand-builders. In 2012, if you have a plan in place, smart social networking is the key to taking control of your professional life. Here are 5 steps to building a better personal brand online.
1. Have a home base online. While Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are excellent destinations to promote what you do, make sure that you also invest time and energy into your own personal website. Whether you take advantage of easy-to-use tools such as Squarespace or WordPress, a simple and clean online home for all your professional information and social streams is a necessity. Not only is it critical to build this home base, but it's also important to drive traffic back to this site to further educate visitors about what you do (or want to do) for a living. Finally, use a professional headshot on your site to give you that competitive edge (sorry--a cropped Facebook photo just won't do!).
2. Be a better blogger. Although online pundits regularly declare that blogging is dead, such as Jason Calacanis did at a tech conference toward the end of December, blogging has simply become much more diverse. It's no longer necessary to write multi-paragraph posts, but instead services such as Tumblr make it easy for individuals to share shorter entries or snippets of text that often include photos and other multimedia. A weekly blog update (or more frequent if you can afford the time) that includes some shareable content is a useful way to drive traffic back from social channels to your website (and to establish yourself as an expert on a topic).
3. Avoid mobile mistakes. In April 2009, we often referred to Ashton Kutcher  as the King of Twitter. This past November, the actor posted a tweet defending Penn State's Joe Paterno (without realizing the sex abuse controversy surrounding the coach) that inspired a "hailstorm of responses" from Kutcher's many followers. Once again, this was an example of how 140 characters or less can immediately damage someone's reputation. Moreover, with more people posting from mobile phones, it's far too easy to make a real-time mistake like this--whether it's updating your status with an inappropriate comment or letting auto-correct do some digital damage. In other words, when networking on the go make sure you carefully review what you're about to push live or, perhaps a better idea, wait until you have a few minutes to review the update without so many mobile distractions.
4. Never stop networking. For non-celebrities who build themselves into well-known brands online, take a look at how frequently they interact. For example, social media author Scott Stratten  has tweeted more than 80,000 times . If he's not sharing digital wisdom across his many online channels, he's responding to messages and reaching out to people to keep the web conversation going. If you don't know where to start, whether it's on LinkedIn or Twitter, find five new people to follow or connect with every day. Make an effort to share something these people have posted or, a simple task, reach out and say hello.
5. Adopt new services. When it comes to personal branding, there is a lot of emphasis on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, but there are plenty of other channels to tell your story. Take a look at how well author Timothy Ferriss  has used short YouTube videos  to promote his 4-Hour mantra and other activities. Google+ is a solid new service for building a personal brand and apps, such as Path, will also allow you to network with people you care about connecting with on a professional level (keep in mind that the latter has a 150-friend limit). While it's not critical to jump on every newly launched service, it can help to choose two or three of the most popular services and then every few months try a new platform on for size.
[Image: Flickr user Joshua Hoffman ]