By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer
NEW YORK -- In today's tough job market, it's critical to stand out. So how to make sure your application gets noticed: A flawless cover letter? Killer résumé? Glowing reference from the CEO?
Not even. In the worst job market in 25 years, building an online presence is crucial to getting a job. Who you connect to, "follow" and "friend" can be just as important as conventional tools like résumés.
"Not only are employers looking for better candidates, but ones that are well versed in social media and seeking out opportunities," said social media expert and president of Affect Strategies Sandra Fathi. "These mediums are here to stay and also a great way to differentiate yourself."
Not only are valuable connections forged with potential employers and colleagues on sites like Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and LinkedIn, but openings are also posted there, sometimes in lieu of job boards.
Making the right connections
LinkedIn, which has over 40 million users, is geared specifically toward professional networking. Expansive networks are built by posting a profile which acts as an online résumé, making connections and getting references from your connections that potential employers can view.
For Barbara Maldonado, LinkedIn was the gateway to a great opportunity. Maldonado, 32, participated in a professional group on the site for "Innovative Marketing, PR, Sales, Word-of-Mouth & Buzz Innovators." Another member of the group posted a question and liked Maldonado's response. From then on they kept in contact.
"When I updated my status that I had been laid off, he referred me for a position that was open at his company, which is where I work now," she said of her current marketing position at the firm in a suburb of Chicago. "Without actively participating in that discussion, I would not have made the contact for the job."
Other sites like Twitter and Facebook, while popular among teens and young adults, have also been embraced by professional communities. Friends on Facebook typically share status updates, pictures and video. Twitter limits exchanges between people, also known as followers, to messages of only 140 characters.
If it weren't for Jen Harris' followers on Twitter, she would not have been notified of another job opportunity, only moments after getting laid off from Idaho-based MPC computers in October.
As Harris packed up her desk she sent out a tweet that read: "just been laid off from MPC."
"By the time I left the parking lot, I had a job offer from a friend that had a Web development company in town," she said.
First dibs on job openings
But job seekers don't have to rely solely on others for information about possible job openings. There are a variety of services associated with social networking sites to help too, like TweetMyJobs, which sends out automatic updates of new openings in a specific field and region sent to your cell phone or by Twitter.
If you fan a company on Facebook or follow internal hiring managers on Twitter, you might be the first to find out about job openings at the employer of your choice.
When the Minneapolis office of Weber Shandwick was looking to hire a junior Web developer, the digital strategy manager, Greg Swan, sent a 136-character tweet to over 2,000 followers which read: "Weber Shandwick Minneapolis looking for mid-level HTML developer and PSD slicer. Plus you get to work with me. DM or @ me for more info."
Doug Hamlin, 23, landed the job after responding with his résumé and information.
Job seekers can also seek out and follow professional recruiters, like Shane Bernstein, to get first dibs on job opportunities.
Bernstein runs an IT talent agency based in Los Angeles and says he uses social networking exclusively to find candidates for technical jobs.
"Social network is going to take over job boards," he said. The greatest advantage to Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and LinkedIn is that job candidates and employers can meet through people. Those connections make it easier to break the ice, he said.
Too much information
But for job seekers, there can also be a downside to that type of access. "It does open up a more 360 degree view," Fathi cautioned.
A prospective employer may see your friends, your pictures and your personal information, "so you can't have drunken pictures of yourself in Cancun," she said.
For starters, Fathi recommends cleaning up your online image. Job seekers should do a Google search on their own name to get a sense of what information is out there.
Because of their popularity, social networking sites will generally pop up first. But make sure the privacy settings are activated so that a potential employer can only access the content that is appropriate.
If a Google search returns no results at all, that means that you don't have an online presence, which is also a bad thing.
Fathi recommends that job seekers immediately create a LinkedIn profile, a Facebook page, join Twitter and any relevant professional networks or communities in your field.
"Even adding your name to a directory or commenting on a high profile blog can create new content for a prospect employer to find when searching for information on you," she said.
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