With all the new media that's come into the business world, there are corresponding pools of professionals waiting to take your money in exchange for their expertise and services. They offer valuable services, from professional website design, graphic design and SEO research to social media coaching, ghost blogging and copywriting—these are not unimportant offerings.
The bottom line is that if you have no budget for an online presence, it doesn't matter how great the offerings are. You've got to navigate the waters on your own, or miss the boat. You don't need to miss this boat.
You can build a professional online image without spending dollars you don't have.
Three Key Elements of Your Online Presence
Without a large budget, you don't have the luxury of adding a lot of bells and whistles. You have to pare down to the basics and create a simple but effective message about you and your business.
1. Your Image
You need a logo for your business or a head shot of yourself. I'd recommend going with a personal headshot rather than a business logo. Your online presence is all about networking, creating connections and building trust. It's easier for people to trust a friendly face than a business logo. You're a person, even when representing your business or your professional self—be a person.
If you don't have a professional headshot, you have a few options.
- Cough up the money and pay for one. It will be worth it.
- Find a friendly photographer or skilled friend and barter for something in exchange for a photo shoot.
- Find a decent photo of yourself and edit it to look as professional as possible.
A professional headshot will go a long way toward making your online image professional. If cash payment isn't an option, throw some bartering offers out there. Many photographers are business owners themselves, and may value the products or services you can offer in exchange. There's no harm in asking.
If your only option is to doctor an amateur photo you already have, follow these guidelines:
- Choose a photo that is primarily of your face with little background clutter.
- Choose a photo that is sharply in focus on your face. Blurry = unprofessional.
- Crop the photo to show you, from the shoulders up or thereabouts.
- Try it in black and white to see if it looks better.
2. Your Copy
The second element of your online image is what you actually say about yourself. Copywriters everywhere will cringe when I tell you that you can do this yourself and still sound professional. (Since I happen to do a good bit of copywriting myself, I don't feel too bad letting you in on this trade secret.)
Here are the basic documents you need to create:
- A short bio or business summary (up to 250 words)
- An extended bio or business description (up to 700 words)
If you are working as a freelancer or consultant, choose a professional biography rather than a business summary. Otherwise, go with a business summary and description.
Take your time to brainstorm. Keep the language simple. Think about what your potential clients or customers need or want from you, and focus on telling them how you know about that need (establishing your expertise) and how you meet that need (establishing your importance to them). Write a short and an extended version, then edit and proofread each one about fifteen times.
There is no better way to make yourself look unprofessional than with the random typo, misspelled word or nonsensical sentence. Get a friend to proofread what you've written. Fresh eyes will find what you might have missed. Read what you have written aloud to yourself. The editing process should take as long (if not longer) as the initial writing process.
3. Your Product
The third element of your online image is your actual product or service presentation, which may be a sales page, a portfolio, or a collection of product descriptions. This is what you want your customers to see once they've read your bio or business description and are interested enough to say, "Tell me more."
Your portfolio should highlight your best work. Your sales page should talk about the greatest benefits for your customers when they purchase your products or services. Your product descriptions should be clear, concise and show how each product solves a problem or meets a need.
The most important part of this presentation is giving a clear, direct and simple way for customers to respond. Copywriters deem this a "call to action." It should be short and simple: "find out more," or "purchase your package today," or "contact me for more information." It should take your customers directly to a place where they can perform that action.
Put Yourself Out There
Once you've created the elements of a professional image, distribute them across every single place you appear online in your professional aspect. This includes your business website, blog, Twitter account, Facebook page, LinkedIn profile and any profiles you have on review or social media sites. It also includes any "guest appearances" you make. If you contribute an article to an online magazine, write for a trade journal, get interviewed by a blogger or have your product highlighted on a website, make sure the notice includes your information, and if possible, direct links to your pages.
This aspect of consistency, of using that same photo or logo and that same bio, summary and/or presentation across the board builds brand consistency. It makes you recognizable and familiar, hence more trustworthy. You can certainly do little tweaks here and there, but you want people to feel comfortable with your online image from one internet locale to another, not startled by how different you or your business appear from website to blog to Facebook.
Simplicity and consistency are key. Keep your descriptions simple and true-to-life. Keep your biography or summary simple, speak plainly and be personal. Talk like a real person, not like a business textbook. Keep it consistent for an image that's true to you, true to your business, and true to the professional reputation you want to create online.
A version of this article was originally published on April 19, 2011.