05/11/2012 01:48 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

Put Forth Your Virtual Best

Updated CV and cover letter? Check. Newly pressed white shirt? Check. Portfolio of recent work samples? Check. Think you're well-prepared for your next job interview? Think again. A recent employer study reveals that 91% of employers use social networking sites to screen employees, and 69% have rejected an applicant based on what they found. That's precisely why upgrading your virtual identity and designing a system to maintain social networking excellence should be at the top of every modern day job seeker's checklist.

When I asked recent jobseekers for their advice on managing social profiles, most suggested a 'clean-it-up-and-cross-your-fingers' approach. One said: "I locked down my Twitter profile, and deleted all my Facebook photos." Another argued that his job application was merely "an invitation for the HR manager to stalk me on Facebook." Existing research conducted to assist job-seekers mirrors these views, with most advocating defensive strategies such as tightening privacy settings, deleting potentially objectionable content and heavily screening status updates.

But by applying a purely defensive mindset to their social identities, job-seekers miss a bright, blue ocean of online opportunity. Your social media presence can be much more than a 'walled garden,' accessible only to your most trusted friends and family. In fact, 68% of employers have hired candidates based on favorable online profiles. This suggests that a completely new set of strategies, such as establishing transparency, personal brand and authenticity, are fast becoming the keys to success in today's competitive job search.

To stand out from the crowd, don't suppress your social self. Instead, climb the Ladder of Social Identity to increase your chances of landing that coveted role. Here's how:

1. Clean up
Your first objective is to eliminate aspects of your profiles that may adversely affect your employment chances. Core activities at this stage include adjusting your Facebook privacy settings to hide any questionable photos and status updates, and potentially anonymizing or locking your Twitter account. Update your LinkedIn profile with your latest achievements and be sure to include a snappy summary. Finally, take note of profile photos. Studies have shown that your Facebook profile photo attracts the most attention, but professional (not boring) Twitter and LinkedIn photos are important, too.

2. Curate
After you've cleaned up, carefully decide who you'll allow past the door. Naturally, your curation approach should differ by platform. Since LinkedIn content is primarily professional, you're able to accept connections more liberally. In contrast, you'll need to make some tough decisions about whether you let potential co-workers and bosses into your Facebook inner circle. My advice to avoid misery down the track? Use strict, individually-tailored privacy settings. Finally, despite Twitter's asymmetric follower model (and attempts by Facebook Subscribe and Google Plus to replicate), it still makes sense to curate who you follow, as this can be a powerful signal as to where your interests lie.

3. Interact
By this stage, you're ready to leap into the conversation. On Twitter, start following influencers in your target industry and function, and comment on their tweets. On Facebook and LinkedIn, suggesting friends and introducing connections injects you further into the mix. But why restrict yourself to the online world? Attending a real-world is a fantastic way to turn your online connections into offline relationships, and vice-versa. Finally, take note of emerging platforms, such as Identified, that leverage the existing social graph and allow job seekers to interact directly with companies in brand new ways.

4. Promote
By promoting other people's content, you're expanding their audience. In this way, retweeting or posting about the work of others is a valuable social currency and a powerful way to stand out. Said one job seeker: "I linked to my interviewer's blog on Quora and he brought it up during the interview." Another chose to selectively retweet her potential manager's tweets, while adding original, incisive commentary. By promoting the content of influencers, you're also increasing the chance of developing a deeper relationship with them down the track. Don't forget -- employers care about who you know. In summary, if you promote other people's content, you're doing them a favor and demonstrating that you're a team-player. But most of all, they'll remember you.

5. Create
The final rung of the ladder is to become a creator. A proven way to begin is by focusing your original blog posts, tweets and Quora answers on the industry or function of your choice. Align your domain with your job interests, strive for interesting and thoroughly-researched content, and post regularly. Since you've proactively interacted with influencers, and promoted the work of others, don't be surprised if they offer you the same courtesy. But don't be get scattered: experts suggest that 80% of your content should be 'pillar posts': targeted content in one primary domain. This will have fantastic search engine optimization effects (read: good stuff comes up when you Google yourself) and drive up your friend, connection and follower count, a valuable source of social proof. By creating content in this way, you're developing an engine that pulls people in and are becoming a visible expert to your potential employers.

If you've successfully climbed the ladder, you haven't settled with hiding your social self. Instead, you've seized the opportunity to develop a differentiated and authentic online presence that becomes a key component of your job search -- both now and in the future. What are you doing to put forth your virtual best?