Like professional athletes, we now live in a time of career free agency, where we must regularly prove our unique value in a competitive and frequently changing marketplace.  This means that it’s no longer enough to have a good reputation in one’s current position. We need to think about how we’re perceived in the broader marketplace by potential future employers.

Even if you intend to stay in your current job forever, clarifying your unique value is something you need to attend to. Clients, conference planners, awards committees and other professionals may be checking you out — primarily online — and you want to make sure that they find the best representation of you.

We’re talking about personal branding, a key element of success in the Internet Age.

A term first coined by Tom Peters in 1997, personal branding includes your professional reputation, online image and personal characteristics such as your work style, community engagement and worldview. It incorporates the particular skills, talents and areas of expertise you’ve cultivated. When I host workshops on personal branding, I ask participants the following questions to help determine the elements of their personal brands:

  • How would your colleagues describe your strengths?
  • On what issues are you the go-to person in your organization?
  • What do you know more about (web design, compensation plans, marketing to baby boomers) than most people?

Once you’ve defined your personal brand, it’s time to showcase it to recruiters, bosses, customers and others who may be assessing you. Here’s how LinkedIn can help:

  1. Be authentic. The best personal brands are genuine and honest both in person and online. It can be tricky to showcase your personality on the web (you might love puns, but those don’t go over well on a professional profile), but it’s possible with a bit of effort. For instance, if your personal brand includes a balance between your detailed accounting skills and your friendly personality, your LinkedIn profile can include both your technical credentials and the fact that you belong to several networking groups. You can also ask former and current colleagues to write LinkedIn recommendations highlighting this combination.
  1. Create a distinctive LinkedIn profile headline. Your headline is your brand’s tag line. It’s the first — and possibly only — description of you that many people will see, so make it count. Go back to the words and phrases your friends and colleagues used to describe your uniqueness: “IT support manager and trusted Mac expert” or “Experienced admin assistant who never misses a deadline.”
  1. Be consistent. Make sure your LinkedIn profile, resume and all other elements of your personal brand are consistent. While you can go into more extensive detail on LinkedIn and perhaps be a bit more personal on Facebook or Twitter, all of your job titles, dates of employment and specific accomplishments need to match up everywhere they appear. Consistency is important so as not to confuse people or send mixed messages about who you are and what you want in your career.
  1. Increase your visibility. If you have a great personal brand but no one knows about it, then you won’t benefit much. Increase your exposure to people in your network by including your LinkedIn profile URL on your business cards, your resume, other social media sites and anyplace else people are interacting with you online or offline. You can also build exposure by consistently updating your LinkedIn status. Tell people what projects you’re working on, what conferences you’re attending and what books and articles you’re reading. Remember that your brand is not just who you are; it’s what you do.
  1. Build your strategic brand association. We generally think highly of people who keep good company, so building your LinkedIn network simultaneously builds your personal brand. Connect on LinkedIn with trusted friends, former colleagues and classmates, industry leaders, vendors and other professionals. And don’t be shy about asking your contacts for introductions to people in their networks. Strong brands are always growing.
  1. Regularly add to your knowledge. Another way to showcase yourself and your brand is to have an expert level of knowledge about your industry. Be well read on topics you care about (For example, LinkedIn Today can help), answer relevant questions in LinkedIn’s Answers section and follow important companies in your field. For instance, if your personal brand includes your interest and knowledge in special education, follow and share news about developments in this field so people think of you as a valuable resource if they need information on that topic.
  1. Share your expertise in LinkedIn Groups. The Groups you join on LinkedIn contribute to your personal brand by indicating where your interests and skills lie. For example, if you want your brand to include a strong knowledge of manufacturing in China, then people will expect your profile to feature groups related to Chinese manufacturing. Inside these groups, you can also showcase your brand though your activity. Every comment you post and question you answer is an opportunity to market yourself and your skills and to build your brand.
  1. Give generously. Finally, helping others is a crucial — and enjoyable — way to build your personal brand. Give advice, volunteer your skills, share client leads, write recommendations, agree to informational interviews and congratulate people on their successes. When people know they can rely on you, they remember you and recommend you to others.

How have you used LinkedIn to build and showcase your personal brand? Please share in the comments or tweet us @linkedin.