If you think social media is overhyped and blogging and tweeting are a waste of time, then Google yourself, warn recruiters – after all, it's the first thing they will do. "Forget the debate over whether or not personal reputation and brand really exist and see what shows up – it's what employers will see," says Charlie Duff, community manager at BraveNewTalent.com.
Consider the woman who was declined a second interview after a casual search pulled up near-nude photos on MySpace. "I think it's nice to get an idea of what applicants are interested in outside the office," the would-be recruiter wrote on askamanager.org. "Sometimes I'll stumble upon a cooking blog or travel photos, but her page shows serious lack of judgement."
Of course, most business and MBA students are far too savvy not to have made a complete audit of dodgy images and rambling posts from the past – but the internet does have a long memory. But more than just a clean bill of online health, the job market requires a focused, crafted and up-to-date online presence, say recruiters. "The point in using social media is to create and promote yourself as a brand in a similar way as a marketer would a product," says Duff.
A month before graduating, Durham Business School alumnus Sergio Brodsky was offered a role as a strategist and consultant with The Brand Union. He's active on Facebook and regularly updates his professional profile on LinkedIn. "Even now, employed, I constantly find new things about myself and update when relevant. Just like in real life, being true to yourself is the best way to portray an authentic image."
But credibility doesn't come easily. Nadim Choudhury, careers adviser at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF), advises MBA students to spend two to three hours each week on nurturing their online presence. "See it as an extension of your normal networking," says Choudhury. No aimless blogging or pointless posts though, or any genuine insights will sink without trace. LinkedIn leads the field in professional networking and is the most popular shop window for many recruiters. Some employers even conduct informal interviews via LinkedIn before meeting candidates in person.
Business students who are active online early on during their course are instantly more credible than those who begin a flurry of activity a couple of months before graduation, says Choudhury: social media is often a long game. But what to post? A well-written blog about your experiences of the course can help – although this is hardly new. The key is to specialise and become a "knowledge expert" in a particular field, which often provides the gravitas to break into a company. "Blogs are great if somebody is establishing a niche topic such as renewable energy for example," says Chris Higgins, assistant director of careers at Insead.
British students might find it culturally uncomfortable to blow their own trumpet online. Here it pays to be generous with intelligent advice. Sharing know-how in targeted forums and being active in discussions are ideal ways to connect with senior business figures, who might post genuine questions. "Always give something before you expect to get something back," says Chris Dalton at Henley Business School.
As an undergraduate, it's harder to be taken seriously enough to share your wisdom, but well-targeted appeals for help and updates on what you have learnt will flesh out your presence. "Be honest about the fact you are looking for opportunities and link to interesting content," explains Duff. "You don't have to know everyone really well to stand a chance of being recommended for a position."
Choudhury offers an example of how to get noticed in a sector such as advertising. Follow a slice of targeted companies on Twitter, so you can get completely up-to-date. Then start a blog observing what's happening in North America compared to Europe, for example. Download a campaign and blog about it, comparing continental differences, give opinions on Twitter and hash tag that company. "It won't happen overnight, but if you are consistent, [a company] will notice you," says Choudhury. "Even if they don't, it gives you a way to prove your passion."
While many professionals are sceptical about the value of Twitter, it's a minefield of job information – often the first way to hear about a job, and an excellent research tool. Building your presence is relatively straightforward, says Duff. Get a reasonable, professional looking headshot and use it across all social media channels to ensure consistent branding. "The other key thing is to write a killer bio. Really work on this one; you won't need to update it too often. LinkedIn, BraveNewTalent and Twitter are good places to put a really sharp, concise round up of what you have to offer."
While recruiters and MBAs say they favour LinkedIn as the most comprehensive network, other sites are also valuable. Most of the top-tier business schools operate closed forums for students and alumni to network – although etiquette dictates no direct appeals for jobs.
Cohorts tend to continue activity on closed Facebook pages even after graduation. Edinburgh Business School's Watercooler forum is an independent place to share information among students at one of the largest providers of online MBAs. Viadeo.com targets individual countries and specific professional groups in their own languages. Some recruiters are even beginning to use Pinterest, one of the fastest growing social sites worldwide.
"Social media has given candidates licence to express themselves beyond the confines of the traditional CV," says Nathan Bowles, CEO of recruiters Smart Solutions. He echoes the enthusiasm of many recruiters for social media. But, he says, it still hasn't replaced a solid CV.
What recruiters say
'It's an integral part of head hunting'
"We use social media as an integral part of our graduate and experienced hire recruitment strategy in terms of head hunting, general attraction and engagement. LinkedIn is an excellent way of establishing yourself as an expert in your field." Sammie Stapleton, PricewaterhouseCoopers
"Although using social media to recruit and search for jobs is very much in vogue at the moment, I do not see CVs being replaced just yet." Iestyn Morris, Capital Law
"All good professional recruiters use online and social media to head hunt and recruit talent." Sarah Hopkins, ResourceBank Recruitment
"Social recruiting has the ability to go viral and find talent using the six degrees of separation approach." Thomas Volkert, SuccessFactors
"There's no point jumping on the latest bandwagon if it's not reaching the people you need. We've found the majority of graduates aren't yet using LinkedIn as widely as we would have thought." Ashley Hever, Enterprise Rent-A-Car
"Pinterest is still very new but the increase in users has been phenomenal so it seems right to experiment." Kate Lavender, TBG Digital
"The primary function of LinkedIn is a networking tool, so while the information provides a good overview, profiles do not offer the detail and insight into the candidate that is needed." Mike Spurr, Wickland Westcott