One of the questions I hear most often when I'm teaching a social media seminar is how to balance their professional social media presence with their personal one. People ask me if they should blog and Tweet as themselves or as their business. They ask if they should mix business contacts with friends on Facebook and LinkedIn. They want to know if they can talk about their hobbies on their business profiles. Basically, they want to know the pros and cons of mixing business with pleasure in the blurry-lined landscape of social media.

It's a question I've had to ask myself many times over the years. For the past decade, my business and personal life have mixed and mingled without incident on the web. I spent two years sharing my life and my thoughts as a nursing mother of two young children on a very public blog called The Lactivist. I shared my obsession with cute lunches when I wrote a series on my bento hobby blog and I shared my daily diet plan with the SEO industry while dropping nearly 20 pounds for charity. If you followed me on Twitter, you were just as likely to hear me talking about a night out with friends, my thoughts on home birth or the last recipe I tried as you were to hear me debating organic search tactics. Basically, my business persona and my personal persona were one and the same.

Or at least they were until last November when I all but vanished from my blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Those who know me well enough to touch base with me at conferences or on Gtalk know I've had quite a bit going on in my personal life over the last six months. The rest of the social media world? They just know I vanished.

It's the peril of letting your personal life get too intertwined with your business life on the web. If something happens that gives you cause to go silent, all the work you've done to build up that social media presence can get thrown out the window and that can hurt your business. While social media has helped move all of us into the celebrity world of living out our personal lives on a stage, many of us choose to keep the most intimate details of our personal lives personal, not realizing just how much our every day conversation reveals until we find ourselves in the midst of personal changes we'd rather not share with the world.

It makes a strong case for keeping your personal life separate. That said, there's an equally strong case for mixing business and pleasure. It's each person's job to weigh the pros and cons and decide for themselves. With that in mind, let's consider it from both angles.

Personal Connections Strengthen Online Bonds

There's a challenge to doing business online. The lack of face to face contact makes it difficult for us to make the personal connections that so often influence our purchasing and partnership decisions. We mix and mingle at Chamber of Commerce meetings because we like to have professional contacts we can trust. We form opinions of people based on our conversations with them, on the things we have in common and on the way we watch them interact with others. We sign deals over a game of golf or a round of drinks. In fact, our personal lives often open doors in the business world by helping us establish connections with people.

That's why despite my own disappearing act from the world of social media, I'm hard pressed to take a hard line stance against allowing your personal life to infiltrate the social media accounts you use for business purposes. While it could be argued my limited participation these past several months has set back my professional growth in the social media community, it can also be argued that my social media profile never would have been as large as it was had I not spent so many years blogging as Jennifer Laycock, kid-wrangling, Buffy-loving, bento-making marketer, and not simply as Search Engine Guide.

With that in mind, let's consider some of the pros of mixing business and pleasure while building your social media accounts.

  1. You can connect stronger and faster with valuable business contacts. It never ceases to amaze me how many people come up to talk to me at marketing conferences because they were a nursing mom or had a wife who nursed. The Lactivist blog did an amazing job of moving me out of the realm of "conference speaker" and into the realm of "hey, she's a mom too!" Sharing bits of your personal life can be a connection catalyst because it opens doors for conversation.


  2. You give a human face to your company. This is something companies like Zappos and Southwest have done extraordinarily well in the social media space. The voices of their leaders have provided a "personality" for what might otherwise be nothing more than a logo and a line on a credit card statement. If we like these personalities, they draw us to a business over and over again.


  3. You can build a following and a brand more quickly. Internet users have flocked to social media sites because they crave connections. Giving them a way to connect to your business or your brand not only builds loyalty more quickly, but it helps spread the word. People talk about the companies that talk to customers and it leads new customers into the fold.


Don't Take an Open Forum too Far

I think the key to remember is that not everything you have to say should be said publicly. Whether it's a celebrity interview that dives way too deep into someone's personal life, or a co-worker venting about finances or relationships, we've all sat through uncomfortable moments where we knew someone else was telling us something we really shouldn't be privy too.

This is something I see happening regularly on Facebook. Whether it's because people mix up "post to wall" and "send a message" or because they simply don't care who sees the conversation, I regularly see the intimate details of people's lives (and the lives of their friends and family) being publicly discussed. We're slowly moving toward an online community that thinks every aspect of their lives are fair game. While that's fine and dandy when they are sharing their own life, it starts to get sticky when their life includes other people.

  1. Nothing you say is private. It's all too easy for people to forget that most social media profiles and services are at least somewhat public. Unless you've locked your Twitter stream, anyone can type in your direct address and read it, even if they don't "follow you." If you post a comment on someone else's Facebook page, any of their friends can read it too. I'm often astounded at the amazingly personal conversations people have in public on social media sites, as if they believe no one else is watching or listening.


  2. Not everyone is going to agree with you. This especially holds true on matters of faith, politics and misappropriated adoration for the University of Michigan. (Everyone knows Ohio State rocks!) It's fine and dandy to have your thoughts and opinions, but you also need to realize sharing them may alienate just as many people as it connects you with.


The Reality

The truth is, personal issues present challenges in life no matter what. Hollywood celebrities and political figures live out the trials and crisis publicly that the rest of us get to face in the relative quiet of our personal lives. The niche celebrity that comes from building a social media profile for your business can thrust us into the same challenges on a smaller level.

For the most part the problems are few and far between, but the truth is you take risks any time you make your personal life public. Consider the pros and cons carefully, look at the type of business model you've set up and decide which factors are most likely to come into play. Ultimately, there's no right way to build a social media profile. Like nearly every other business and marketing decision you'll make, you've got to weigh the risks and do what works most effectively for you.


June 10, 2009





Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.





Comments(16)

Jennifer,

Thumbs up! Thank you for sharing your insights. Many of us struggle with this same issue. I have stepped back from a lot of participation, including blog commenting, due to personal situations that one does not tweet about. I have also struggled with the professional opportunity cost. Thanks for sharing your peril!!

I wonder how much social media participation parallels our personalities. Some people will openly share while others will retreat. I think the bottom line is to keep our conversations professional as you suggested. Many of us, self included, can get too excited about new relationships, and such excitement can overshadow best practices.

Interestingly, when I was first "figuring out" social media, I learned about your The Lactivist blog and "the other white meat" dispute with the pork industry. The light bulb went off regarding the power of social media!

You have and continue to lead and teach many by your sharing. Hope to see more of it!

Great tips- I struggle with this on a daily basis!

Jennifer,

Great article on a very important topic. These are uncharted waters we are entering and the right balance between business and personal can be very difficult to achieve.

You made an excellent point in that, with just one keystroke, everything you worked so hard for can be wiped out. That can be a VERY expensive lesson.

Keep up the good work,

Brian Moran

Thanks for sharing the reasons behind "It depends."
I've struggled with this question A LOT and it has hampered my social media presence.

For me, I think the right direction is staying mostly professional while revealing particular aspects of my personality that resonate best with my business. That sounds like common sense to me now, but it's taken me awhile to arrive at the conclusion. :)

Oy. This is a thorny issue. I think Facebook is the social site that presents the most day-to-day challenges in where to draw the line between business life and personal life.

A few months ago, I decided to just use Facebook for friends and family and disconnected from the handful of professional contacts I had on Facebook. I am a deeply caring person and very professional with clients. But, I (like most of my family and my spouse's family) have a rather dark and sarcastic sense of humor that's just not appropriate in a professional setting.

I was fine with the distinction until a professional colleague who is sort of becoming a friend ask to connect on Facebook. What to do? After thinking about it for a few weeks, I've decided to contact him separately and explain the situation so he knows that if we connect on Facebook, he might see some offensive stuff and give him the option to bail out if he wants.

The other issue is: How did my disconnecting come across to my professional colleagues? Did I offend them? Do they even know? Should I say something or just let it slide? Right now I'm taking a wait and see approach but I wish I'd thought this through a bit more on the front end.

An excellent article Jennifer.

For most of us, there's probably a pretty fuzzy line separating our business and personal lives on social media, and there must always be some doubt about where that line is placed. As Voltaire said, "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd."

Our doubt probably makes most of us a little cautious about posting too much personal information on a business (or even personal) social media site. That doubt and the resulting caution are probably good for us in the long run.

"I think the key to remember is that not everything you have to say should be said publicly." All are judged by yourselves! No criteria. It's a game between popularity(marketing) and privacy!

Regards,

Thanks for the article. This is truly an issue for business people & one I struggle with daily too!

Fantastic article. I think people often forget that if they wouldn't walk into a room full of strangers and share the most private details about their personal lives over the microphone for all to hear, then sharing it via social media is a very bad idea. Although, I disagree on your point that there is no right way to build a social media profile. The right way is finding a comfortable balance between sharing personal and professional information to your online audience without going overboard. Our comfort levels may differ. And our audiences may accept different levels of sharing. But in the end, the right way is the one that gives you the result you're looking for.

I've never really battled keeping public and private separate entities, I guess mostly because there are so few things I don't mind sharing with the world out there. When it comes down to people not liking my sense of humor (or lack thereof) or preferences I guess I mostly just don't care. I know that sounds kind of harsh, but I'm likely to say something at some time that will offend, why not get it over and done with in the beginning.

But hey, that's just me.

Jennifer, I'm really appreciating the balance you've presented in this post! I'm pondering all this myself for the last several weeks. I've been a communication consultant for most of my adult life and the challenges that social media are presenting are brand new for most people, including "public relations" professionals. The kinds of advice I used to give about separating personal and professional messages and "preparing" your remarks carefully for specific publics are just not useful anymore. The choices are so much complex now with electronic trails and our decisions have impacts that go on and on and on.

I blogged myself recently around a piece Jeff Jarvis published last month in Business Week. You can find it here:
http://virtualmeetingcoach.com/2009/05/21/in-the-company-of-nudists-no-one-is-naked/

I would love to hear your thoughts about what I was poking around in there.

I'd also love to hear your thoughts about a new E-course I just released this week about building trust working with others online. It's a dicey process, as you've described here so well. I'm very interested in this whole subject and watching all the time for new angles on the topic.

Again, I so appreciate your thoughtful writing!

As my grandmother used to always say "everything in moderation." She was talking about food but its the same with social media and mixing business and pleasure. Especially for small businesses, it is worthwhile to share pieces of yourself that help prospective clients get to know you. As you said, doing business over the internet loses that face-to-face connection that people used to feel peddling their wares down main street. Its a good policy to doublecheck yourself when you're sharing something personal, that it won't come back to haunt you or cause regret. Clearly this becomes even more important when you discuss someone else.

Hi Jennifer:

I read you posts all the time, and this one was an (as usual) great one. I am struggling with the same issues right now. I started my Facebook and Twitter accounts focusing on my personal life, and am now hoping to use the accounts to focus on my professional life (but still would like to keep some of my personality in them.) I believe my best professional relationships are those with folks who share my interests and with whom I enjoy talking with about their families, etc. Its a real balancing act!

Thanks again for a great post!

Ya!
its defiantly a important issue.
i m facing the same problem,but never understood in such a better way.
how to maintain social network, when your private and public issues comes across. but your suggestions for that are good.
one need to balance his both contacts on the same platform. in fact Proper balancing of private and business contact on social media could be beneficial for your business.

Thanks so much for all the input on this post. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one trying to balance this...though it feels odd to have spent the last few years THINKING I had it balanced only to find I didn't. ;)

I think Facebook is really one of the biggest challenges in this realm. It's easy enough to know LInkedIn is a professional environment, but Facebook has done an amazing job of crossing the boundaries. Initially, I'd figured I'd only "friend" the work/industry types I felt I knew well enough to "share" my personal life with...but as Facebook adds more functionality and increases their adoption rates, it's really kind of becoming the go-to meeting place on the web.

SiteLogic and Search Engine Guide both have groups over there, and since those are the companies I work for, I almost HAVE to have a "professional" presence on the site. That makes it difficult to try and keep my friend list limited to those I actually "know."

The search for balance continues...

Meri,

I think you ask some good questions in your post and I think the response from Michelle (http://virtualmeetingcoach.com/2009/05/21/in-the-company-of-nudists-no-one-is-naked/) is a good one. Facebook has been very good about expanding their privacy control options to help people limit what their contacts see.

I also think the point your friend makes about not wanting people to judge her based on her friends is a good and interesting one. Much of our lives requires "explanation" in order to avoid the initial gut reactions that people often form. A sarcastic, but well-intentioned Facebook update can come across harshly to someone who doesn't know the poster well enough to get their sense of humor. That adds the extra layer of not only what you share, but wondering how what you share might be interpreted...

Very forward and leading edge discussion. Some here may wish to check out "I.T. WARS" - Google it, and read the interview with the author at The Business Forum (about the 4th link down, when Googling the title). Very illuminating.

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Mixing Business with Pleasure: The Potential Peril of Social Media