Blog Post

Can You Be Personal and Professional in Social Media?

There have been plenty of blog posts and discussions recently about how you need to be “personal” across the various social media web sites, even when communicating on behalf of your company or brand. Social media is about conversations, and people have conversations with other people, not faceless corporations. So you want to come across as a person talking with people, not at them, unlike the traditional one-way marketing broadcasts of yesteryear.

In this post, I am going to focus specifically on how to balance the personal with the professional, but you should also read Aliza’s post about revisiting her 10 golden rules of social media for more best practices.

You can actually be professional and personal at the same time in social media without too much effort. When we talk about “being personal” on social media web sites, I think that many people confuse “personal” with “private.” The reality is that you get to decide what to share and what not to share, so you can still keep most areas of your private life private. Think about this like the beginning of a conference call on Monday where you spend a few minutes talking about how you spent your weekend. You probably aren’t going to reveal anything private, inappropriate or unprofessional in a conference call with a client or coworkers, but sharing a little personal information does help you get to know each other on a level that is slightly deeper than just having strictly work conversations. This is exactly the type of personal information you can easily share on social media.

Value is an important consideration for both personal and professional social media posts. Before you post something, think about the value that you can offer along with the observation. For example, “making pizza for dinner” is going to be of little value and less interesting to people than if you get detailed about the type of pizza and include a link to the recipe. While you may be thinking it’s silly to post about food, the reality is that people really bond around food; they enjoy talking about it, and it’s way more neutral than politics or religion. In other words, it’s a relatively safe topic, but one that people are very passionate about. Now, you probably wouldn’t post something like this to a corporate account for your brand (unless you are Tony Hsieh from Zappos), but you can talk about your products in a personal way by adding a note about your experience with the product as the author of the post. Maybe you helped with the design or product definition, and you can mention your personal contribution to the product.

Variety can also play a big role in how well you balance the personal and professional. You should strive for an appropriate balance based on your situation with a nice variety in your posts. For example, if you use Facebook mostly for personal reasons, and you start posting almost exclusively professional updates, your personal friends will probably be irritated. Likewise, if you use Twitter mostly for work, and you start posting only personal updates, you’ll lose the people who are following you for your professional insights. The trick is to come up with a balance between the personal and professional that works well in your situation, without swinging too far into either direction. I make a point of looking at my Twitter stream every few days to make sure that I have an appropriate balance of personal and professional along with a few other things that I try to balance (informative vs. fun, self-promotion vs. promoting others, etc.)

Context is also important. Being personal is very important in some cases and less important in others, so you need to think about the context and what you are trying to accomplish as a brand, and make the right decisions for your company. The tricky part is that no one approach will work for everyone and no one piece of advice fits well in every situation. This means living within the norms of the various web sites or networks where you are participating, but coming up with an approach that makes sense for you and your company. No blogger, consultant or industry expert can make the decision about the right balance for you.

How do you balance personal with professional in social media?

Photo by Flickr user D. Sharon Pruitt used under Creative Commons.

28 Responses to “Can You Be Personal and Professional in Social Media?”

  1. Great post! I especially love your comment about treating the personal as what you’d chat about at the beginning of a conference call. Great analogy! I think this is typically a tricky area for people. Some share a little too much and some just have no personality.

  2. Great Article! This is often discussed but not written about. Great Stuff. In my programs I usually tell folks 80%bus. 20% personal or 70/30. It’s good not to be a robot online and not just be all about work. On the flip side..keep private stuff..private.

    I raise my glass to you!

    Jennifer Abernethy
    Author of the forthcoming book “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Social Media Marketing” (Alpha/Penguin) April 2010

  3. It’s definitely possible, in my opinion, to be both personal and professional in your Tweets and Blog posts. After all, most of us do it every day in our professional lives when we’re working with colleagues, dealing with email, etc.

    I think the bottom line is to follow the old advice about online posting; never post anything online under your name or that of your company that you wouldn’t want your mother, boss or major shareholder to read. :-)

    • Yes… but what that does is to force people to repress anything that goes beyond that definition of appropriate *all the time*. Again, that’s not what we do in real life. In real life, we might act silly, talk about personal (but not really private) stuff with friends in a bar, get drunk, etc. But we don’t have ways to so that online – we can’t be the silly, sometimes outrageous people we are to friends and be the appropriate, correct people we are in our professional lives. The issue right now with SM is that we continually are reminded that we need to be appropriate and if we aren’t there can be bad professional consequences… but then we’re asked to be ‘authentic.’ Um…

  4. Balancing the personal and professional can be hard. With the current economy and the way we’re moving, more people are going to be “free agents” who need to understand how to be professional yet also personable. It helps to have some goals for your social media as that may guide you when trying to make a decision about what’s appropriate.

    I was recently asked to give a presentation on personal vs. professional branding on the social web which talked about how many of us fall somewhere in the middle. You can check it out here:

  5. Mary, I happy to hear that you enjoyed my recipes :) It also sounds like you’ve found a good balance between personal and professional that works for you.

    Buddy, that’s a great approach to writing posts that sound more personal for your organization! Many people struggle with how to make organizational posts more personal, and yours conveys the message you want to get across while still sounding like it comes from a real person.

  6. Buddy Alves

    There is no doubt about it — social media is not business media. The quickest way to turn someone off to your message is to come across like a pushy used car salesman. At the Maryland Transit Administration where we are trying to encourage more people to drive less and take transit more, we have discussed on to get our message across on social media channels. The dominent factor in conveying our message has to subtly. Example:
    Instead of posting a message on the Facebook wall like “Ride MTA Light Rail and save money”, we might say “Reading a great book while relaxing on MTA Light Rail.” This approach sounds more personal than professional and yet we are still conveying a professional message. Hope this helps.

  7. When I read the question in your title, I was prepared to answer “No.” But then I read your point on Value, and I have to confess I have used two recipes from your tweets. (True! The 140 character Tapenade and the link to Butternut Squash Pasta.) But the “No” comes from my decision to use Facebook purely for personal and Twitter primarily as business. What you want to say where really depends on who your “friends” are and who you “follow”. Although that’s how I chose to sort it out, I admit to the personal moments on Twitter, as you say, like the Monday morning business conversation about the weekend. Good post, and in the end, I have to agree with you.

  8. Even more important point: “Personal” sounds off-the-cuff, candid, and friendly. “Professional” should sound that way too, but you can’t cuss or be risque.

    Now figure out how to mix those. Meaning learn to communicate without going blue.

    Amazing how many tweets ignore that point.

    Jeff Yablon
    President & CEO
    Answer Guy and Virtual VIP Computer Support, Business Change Coaching and Virtual Assistant Services

    Answer Guy and Virtual VIP on Twitter

  9. The hard part is that you can share things that are appropriate in one context, but that go beyond what you might share in a business context, yet aren’t really private. For example, if you’re a wine geek (Guilty!) you might share out what wines you’re drinking with dinner or talk about a great tasting… yet business colleagues who find wine pretentious or are uptight about drinking might not like that. in real life we might tell one set of friends about the wine but not mention it at work – the issue with most social media etc is that you can’t share with THIS group but not THAT group without a lot of work. I have a personal and work account, but that’s not really great and there’s nothing stopping people from following both (blocking aside).

  10. In the few months I first started using Twitter I would tweet out mainly “professional” links and interact here or there. Then Twitter got kind of boring for me. Then I started to switch it up by sending tweets in whatever I was in the mood (usually humor involved) while still sending out the professional updates here or there.

    I realized I went from, to put into an analogy, that weird guy at work to being that fun guy at work that people talk to. We can’t be serious 100% of the time.

    So personal and professional does have it’s place together. They belong to each other!

  11. Great article! This is something I have often thought about. I like the tip on talking about food and how it’s a neutral point. I’ve never thought about that, but that’s a good point. Thanks for sharing :)