Cameo Hartz planned a career counseling technology conference at Elon University with colleagues from across the state in 2010 without once meeting face-to-face.
They hashed out details and got to know each other through LinkedIn, Twitter and other online forums, where they had discovered their shared interests in digital technology and career counseling.
Two years later, those colleagues continue to share their experiences, both online and in person. Through these connections, Hartz now serves on the board of the Career Counselor Technology Forum, a global online community for career counselors interested in technology. She has also presented and written articles in several other professional settings.
"Never underestimate the power of using the online space for creating real, professional relationships," said Hartz, senior assistant director of Duke's Career Center. "A professional online presence is a powerful tool for career development."
An online presence is a 24/7 digital footprint influenced by what you do and say in cyberspace and what others post about you. That's why Hartz urges frequent tending of your digital reputation to ensure it reflects professional passions and skills authentically. For starters, Hartz recommends searching for your name online.
"Everyone should periodically Google himself or herself," she said. "You might be surprised at what is there."
Once you establish what traces of you exist on the web, Hartz said, you can polish your identity by creating boundaries between personal and job-related information and posting items that are pertinent to your career.
Knowing - and using - the privacy settings on social media sites such as Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube can help keep childhood photos and casual posts from overshadowing your professional reputation, she said.
Cara Rousseau, Duke's social media manager, recommends creating even stronger boundaries by using different tools to communicate with different audiences. Rousseau uses Facebook, with its customizable privacy settings, to share personal pictures and news with family and friends. Because anyone can read her tweets, she focuses that news stream on work-related updates about higher education and technology of interest.
"I adhere to the rule that I never post anything on Twitter that I wouldn't want a boss or employer to see," Rousseau said.
Once you've separated the personal and professional, the next step is to expand your professional brand online.
Hartz, the assistant director of Duke's Career Center, recommends joining LinkedIn as a first step to creating that professional brand. With approximately 187 million users and a new person joining every two seconds, LinkedIn is the world's largest professional network. But don't settle for simply posting your resume, Hartz said. "Find a group to join, ask questions, and participate in conversations," she said. "That's how you build credibility."
Other easy ways to enhance your digital reputation include commenting on news articles or blogs related to your interests, or writing reviews about books and tools pertinent to your field.
"You don't have to write a blog or use twitter every day to have an online presence," Hartz said. "Consistency is more important than ambition. Pick something small that you enjoy doing online, and do it over time. That creates credibility and a sense that you follow through - two important professional qualifications."
The most effective way to use an online presence for professional development is to share useful information, Hartz said. She recently used LinkedIn to share and comment on a Harvard Business Review Blog article describing how recruiters search user-generated content to find suitable talent. Within a few hours, two of her connections had "liked" the post, confirming her instinct that the article would generate interest among peers.
"The best opportunities for professional development have always come from creating relationships where people feel a give and take," Hartz said. "The big difference now is that the online space blows the world wide open as far as the possibilities of who your audience is."