In my previous column, How you look matters when you're visiting clients, I mentioned that I work from home 99% of the time; thus, the vast majority of my "meetings" with clients occur online — through email, virtual conferences, social media, and Google. I have never met one third of my clients in person, so the only impression they can have of me is via the Web or the phone.
I see that trend growing, as more people become comfortable with conducting more of their lives and businesses online. Whereas 15 years ago almost no business came from the Web, the majority of my first contacts now come from search engine traffic — for better or worse. Back in the old days when most referrals came from someone who knew me, their judgment qualified me for the prospect before they made the recommendation. Google is getting smarter all the time, but it still requires a lot of effort to make sure that I'm a good fit for the prospects who find me.
What else prospects find about me can have an impact as well. Even though certain sites are designated as professional (e.g., LinkedIn) or personal (e.g., Facebook), what curious candidate client isn't going to check out the photos from the bachelor party posted on Flickr, the political rants on a personal blog, or the NSFW humor linked from Twitter accompanied by the profound commentary "lmao :D"?
That's not to say that you shouldn't be open and genuine online — just that you need to be aware that anyone may see it. I prefer to err on the side of pissing people off. I like for them to know that I'm a straight shooter — that I don't say one thing to their face and another behind their back. If they don't appreciate my sense of humor or my libertarian (not to say libertine) ethics, then maybe doing business with them would just be too much of a hassle anyway. But in order to be that open, I must not try to be two different people in those different venues because there is no barrier between them. On the Web means "in public," so you never post things that you don't want your client to see.
As with meeting people for the first time in person, your first impression online can make or break a potential connection. The photo that first accompanies your name will often stick in the mind of the googler, so choose the right profile picture for social media sites. TechRepublic member AnsuGisalas called out my TechRepublic profile picture for generating a bad first impression; the shades, I guess, seemed flippant. For a long time, I used this more professional-looking photo instead (which I clipped out of a family Christmas portrait). I found, though, that in most cases it was too formal — like showing up in a suit at every engagement. I chose my current picture precisely because it's more laid-back. I want my clients to know that I not only bring the dedication to solving their problems that enabled me to buy that waterfront property pictured in the background, but also a sense of humor and a desire to make the experience enjoyable.
There isn't one "right" message for consultants to send online. Perhaps there isn't even one right message for you — maybe complexity is part of your mystique. But it's important to understand that everything you do online from forums to YouTube says something about you publicly. Make sure it's what you want to say.
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.