Social Media: The New Cover Letter?

Mar 23, 2009
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Over the weekend, I followed a conversation between Charlie O’Donnell (@ceonyc), Founder of Path 101, and Alison Doyle (@alisondoyle),’s Job Search Guide on Twitter, and then later on their blogs. (Click on the graphic for a larger, more readable version.)

They were debating the value of the cover letters vs. a more comprehensive personal branding effort built around social media.

So here is my take:

Charlie is right. Social media allows you to take control of your personal brand and highlight your strengths. You can show rich examples of your work. You can let people peek inside your head in a way that resumes and cover letters never have and never will.

This morning, Jessica Lee linked to Matthew Cadwallader, a senior at UMass-Amherst who is using his website and blog to showcase his obvious skills and passion for communications, A/V production and writing. Matthew’s got it going on. He could not possibly have communicated just how impressive he is with only a resume and cover letter.

Alison is right too. The vast majority of professionals are unwilling or unable to send the time and effort needed to maintain a presence as good as Matthew’s. To do it well is a job in and of itself, and if you are looking for a new job immediately, a cover letter can absolutely convey that you have spent the time to learn about the company to which you are applying. When I receive a cover letter that shows an understanding of what ERE is and the position that we are trying to fill, I definitely take note.

Long term vs. Short term & Farming vs. Hunting

To a large degree, the cover letter vs. social media debate is like discussing the merits of the hammer vs. the screwdriver. Different situations call for different tools, and often both are necessary.

The social media approach is a long-term marketing approach to career development where you make yourself professionally visible to the world. It gives you the opportunity to show off your work, drive, personal philosophy, and depth of knowledge.  More importantly, it lets you engage in conversations that would never materialize if you were not “out there.” You plant the seeds today, and over time you grow relationships that will bear fruit throughout your career. Everyone should do this, but in the real world, it will always be a minority (and Charlie, Matt, Jessica, and Alison are all examples) who do it well enough to truly stand out. Isn’t that what marketing is about?

The purpose of the cover letter, on the other hand, is to convince the reader it that you are the right person for that specific position at that specific company. You’re hunting, not farming, and the cover letter is a tool  to show that you have done your homework and have real interest. It’s transactional, which some look down on as short-sighted, but your goal is to find work ASAP, so that’s just fine.

It’s not an either/or proposition. There are so many people today who need a job now. And these people cannot afford to wait for the farming approach to bear fruit. If you are serious about managing your career you should start planting those seeds, but if you are hunting for a job today, you had also better do what you can to tailor your resume and cover letter to show your interest in the position.

Social media as a career management tool will definitely be a topic of conversation at the Social Recruiting Summit @ Google HQ. Follow @socrecruiting on Twitter for updates on the Summit as they become available!

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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