Building a digital presence after age 50: 8 lessons

by Peter Osborne on October 7, 2010 · 0 comments

This post is based on my PodCamp Philly presentation last week.  Here’s a link to the handout, but please take a few minutes to read the background.

I’m not sure if I’m going to make it as a consultant.  It’s not talent; it’s staying power (i.e., cash flow) and visibility.  I have to admit I’m spending more time lately on the search for a full-time position.  I’ve made mistakes along the way.  I’ve spent too much time cultivating prospects who I knew deep down would be slow to decide or slow to pay.  I’m not doing myself any favors with branding myself to attract both recruiters and clients.  I’m not as good as Search Engine Optimization as I need to be to get that visibility. And I prefer to do the work (content execution) than I do looking for it (selling new clients).

I’ll be 51 in a couple of days and compete every day with younger consultants (and job seekers) who are more comfortable with the online tools and platforms.  But the scary thing is that I’m much more advanced than most of my peers who don’t have websites, don’t have blogs, threw up crappy LinkedIn profiles that described any one of a thousand people, and think Twitter is a waste of time (if they knew what Twitter was).  And if they have a Facebook account, they’re using it to share picture of the kids with the grandparents.  And Search Engine Optimization?  You’re talking a foreign language with most of them.

Social-networking use for people 50-64 has risen 88% over the past year, but only to 47% this past May, from 47% in April 2009, according to a Pew study.  In a comparison statistic that’s hardly stunning, the growth was far slower among the 18-29 demographic.  The AARP released its own study in September, saying that while 23% of its members use Facebook, only 4% use LinkedIn and 3% use Twitter.  And then of course there’s the recent Sysomos study of 1.2 billion Tweets that reinforces my demographic’s view of that platform: 71% of messages fail to produce a reaction.  So why bother, they ask. 

Building your digital visibility is a huge deal because the ranks of consultants are being filled by an increasing number of the nation’s unemployed people who have been out of work for more than a year (30% of the 14.7 million and 35%+ in each of the demographics over the age of 35, according to a Pew study released yesterday).  Competition for projects (or jobs) is fierce and you have to make it easy to find you.

18 months ago, I was a digital infant...but I've grown up a lot because I have great parents

I did a digital inventory within 24 hours of being laid off.  I was sure I’d have a new job within 90 days and would be double-dipping for a very long time.  But I was interested in where I stood.  That inventory didn’t take long. I had 127 connections on LinkedIn, 74 of them internal contacts (despite having a relationship-management job with dozens of partners).  I had a bare-minimum Profile, belonged to a couple of credit-card industry and university-alumni LinkedIn groups, and had no idea what an Answer was.  No blog.  No website. No Twitter. No Facebook. One listing — midway down the first page — when I Googled my name.

I’m in a much better place today.  This is one of two blogs (here’s a link to the other one). I actually have three websites, though one is somewhat dormant.  I have more than 500 LinkedIn connections (and less than a third are former co-workers) and a LinkedIn profile that has been described as one that “people can learn from.”  I’ve started some LinkedIn groups and belong to a bunch and use them to promote my blog and consulting services and meet people who have either helped me or I can help. I started on Twitter a few months ago, mostly to learn how to use it but I think I’m developing a pretty strong presence that could pay off with projects or jobs in the near future.  And I’m Googling much better, although I will admit that my brand Googles better than my name (more on that in a bit).

The purpose of this post is not to whine or complain.  It’s to offer my advice to people who are where I was 18 months or so ago, to help you avoid the mistakes I’ve made in building a digital presence.  So here are the eight ways you can improve your online presence, build credibility and trust, and (hopefully) get more business.  I’ll keep it brief (although it’s already kind of late for that), and probably elaborate in future posts.

  1. Strategy Before Tactics.  This is so, so important.  It’s not about getting 500 Connections on LinkedIn or getting 10,000 hits on your blog within X months.  Those are tactics for a bigger strategy.  What are your goals? In the big picture, you want people to be attracted to you for some reason.  You want to get a job; keep your skills sharp; create a visual resume; sell your skills or more products; retain customers (or get new ones); build a community; or promote a cause.  You need to build your list and (very important) claim your digital real estate (that one, BTW, is the subject of a future post and a new product I’m developing).
  2. Don’t Just Dive In.  Take your time.  Choose your platforms and don’t try to do everything at once. First, do some listening. I’m not talking about just setting up Google Alerts for your name or company and seeing what people are saying about you.  It’s about listening to conversations about your industry and related topics.  It’s about watching how other people do it — subscribing to their blogs, looking at their websites, seeing how they Tweet (if you want a good starting point, go to our Blogroll on Steroids where you can link to some of the best–that’s how I’ve learned).  It’s not about keeping score or being a Collector; it’s about building relationships. A terrific PR person and blogger in Chicago, Gini Dietrich, told me she thinks 500 Twitter followers is a magic number.  She didn’t tweet anything until she had 500 followers but focused solely on building relationships by sending direct @ conversations until she hit that 500 number.  Those 500 still follow her and she knows most of them in ways, now, other than Twitter.  I admire her discipline and have begun taking periodic looks at my Followers and cutting out the spammers. 
  3. Stay Focused. Avoid Distractions.  Stay Focused is the mantra of my friend Ed Callahan and he’s right.  You have to remind yourself regularly what your goals are and stay on track.  Use keywords within reason.  There are lots of bright, shiny objects out there.  Don’t try to grab all of them.  It’s easy to get caught up with blog reading and Tweet flows. Be careful about mixing business and pleasure.  Schedule yourself and be disciplined.  Regarding my goals, I’ve recently consolidated my WordPress.com blog with my consulting website onto a new domain with a new host that lets me do affiliate marketing, use PayPal to close on my Calls to Action, and take advantage of my Must Read links in my blog to get a commission from Amazon (just a few examples).  I’ve already paid for my first year of website hosting with commissions from partner sites.  I still have a long ways to go on this one, but I’ve done a 180 since I started.
  4. Build a Brand, But Don’t Lose Your Name.  You have to Google well and you need to focus on figuring out your keywords and then using them.  Some will tell you that people should be able to find you by searching on what you do and where (e.g., attorney and Philadelphia).  That’s more difficult when you do many things or don’t fit neatly into a one- or two-word description.  I made the decision to brand as Bulldog.  People like the name.  I get comments.  They smile at my business card. And it accurately describes my brand.  I also created this website to provide tips, links, and advice to new consultants.  I “own” the Bulldog Simplicity and Consultant Launch Pad search terms, but I don’t yet own my own name.  I haven’t done a particularly good job, apparently, at tying Bulldog to my name when I plug it in alone.  You can own your own brand on LinkedIn by focusing on your profile, requesting targeted Recommendations, letting people know when you post, building your industry network, and defining (and using) appropriate keywords.  And one more thing, use and tag videos and pictures on your site and blog.  They search far better than words.
  5. Forget Daily Metrics…For Now.  True story.  My daughter wrote a post about the band Paramore on the Nickelodean website that had 400 hits within a couple of hours.  My ego took a hit. The point is, the numbers really don’t matter for most of us.  It’s the Comments and the engagement.  And that’s different for a lot of people in this demographic because we grew up looking at spreadsheets and getting promotions and bonuses based on the numbers.  I started with a WordPress.com blog and had 14,000 hits in about a year.  But it wasn’t translating into business or calls about a job.  My advice: Think carefully about your Categories, Tags, and Keywords.  Figure out what the important metrics are that impact your goals and do the right things that help you achieve those goals and build a community. 
  6. Learn sharing early

    6.  It’s All About Sharing. People in my demographic are not wired to share, at least not the way you need to think about sharing with social media.  It’s more than sharing your thoughts. You have to have the confidence to give away your processes, knowing that you’re the best choice to implement it.  Comment on other people’s blog with something more than “nice post.”  I’ve seen a big (relatively speaking) jump in Twitter Followers in the past two weeks because I’m participating in evening chats. Offer some perspective.  Sally Hogshead, the author of Fascinate, says “you can be comfortable or outstanding but not both.”  Don’t worry about getting a negative comment from someone, she says.  Clients in the middle don’t care.  The middle position is goodbye.  It’s death.  It’s not caring.  Think about what you can create over the next 30 days that people will want and put it on your website or give it away.  It will come back to you.

  7. Online Is No Substitute for Face-to-Face.  We can all get stuck behind our keyboards “talking” to people and forget that the best way to build trust and get referrals is to meet them in person. I published a post last week about a friend who called me out of the blue and took me networking.  To this point, most of my networking has been with other people looking for work.  Then I went to PodCamp Philly last week and made 15-20 good solid contacts. I’m feeling much better about my prospects.
  8. Without a Call to Action, You May Be Wasting Your Time.  Marketing blogger Jim Connolly says visitors to your website need to be able to tell what you most want them to do.  Your blog can have  a lot of goals, says Chris Brogan, from attract new business or promote someone else, to providing links, starting a conversation, or being helpful.  On LinkedIn, you need to make it easy for someone to find you or to get their attention and you have to tell them what you want.  Just having a blog or a website or a Profile isn’t enough.  This is where your goals come in handy.  Calls to Action are the Mariano Rivera of goals.  You have to be able to close.

We (people over 50) need to be online…to compete, to find the job or get projects, to get into the conversations, and to remain relevant.  Whether you’re looking for projects or looking for a job, the game is Survivor, where the strongest don’t always win and the decision maker looks for reasons to eliminate rather than embrace. Don’t let your online presence be a reason to be voted off the island.  Figure out how to make Google and Bing and the other search engines your friend in your public-relations effort.  We’re all in this together.  If you need help, here’s a link to my consulting pages.

Time to open the Comments section.  What important lessons have you learned while building your online presence?

P.S.  By the way — and this P.S. is both a commercial and a contest entry –  there are a lot of places you can learn how to raise your digital presence and improve your search results.  If your consulting focuses on public relations — and if it doesn’t, you can stop reading – one place to learn a lot would be the 2010 PRSA International Conference in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 17-18.  I’d love the opportunity to learn at the feet of Lee Odden, who will be doing sessions on SEO for PR and Social Media for PR.  I’d love the chance to hear live (and maybe meet) some of the people I’ve been learning from over the past year or so.  If PR is where you consult, maybe I’ll see you there.

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