Are you sporting a digital mullet?

One of the public relations groups I follow on LinkedIn has recently been debating the merits of freelancers, independent consultants, and other self-employed professionals using an email address from AOL, Hotmail or Yahoo for professional purposes.

The gist of the argument is “how am I supposed to take you seriously as a professional when you’re using an email address straight out of 1997, especially if you’re a PR or technology consultant?”

They noted how simple and inexpensive it is for even the smallest of businesses to purchase a personalized domain name for email and web purposes.

Other participants raised security concerns about using those services, and how common it is for those accounts to be hacked, spoofed and otherwise compromised, all of which are party fouls when dealing with confidential information and serious business matters.

One person said an AOL email address was like a digital mullet. I love that term, and have committed myself to using it at least once a week.

While I found the debate mildly entertaining, it did get me thinking about the image we project to clients and customers based on the technology choices we make.

I turned 30 earlier this year, and I believe people my age (give or take a couple years) have an interesting perspective on the internet and the digital revolution, because we were growing up while it was growing up.

When I started kindergarten, I think our entire school had one computer, my worksheets were reproduced on a ditto machine, and my teachers showed educational films that were made out of actual film. When I graduated from high school, my entire school was wired with high-speed internet, we had rooms filled with computers, and overheads were giving way to PowerPoint.

Now folks in my generation are buying houses, starting families, moving up the corporate ladder, and doing all those other things grownups do.

We are decision makers, and we judge the professionalism of your brand based (at least in part) on the technology you use. We don’t view technology as a cool value-add. We view it as a minimum standard you must meet before we will take you seriously.

I think the utility industry provides a fine illustration of why it’s important to put your best digital foot forward.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with several rural electric cooperatives on various public relations and community outreach programs. Electric cooperatives are well-run professional utilities providing outstanding customer service and reliable electricity to millions of homes and businesses across the United States.

Unfortunately, because they primarily serve rural areas, some people wrongly perceive these organizations as less capable or sophisticated than their urban counterparts. This perception is simply not true. In fact, electric co-ops are often early adopters of new technology (like smart meters), because the rural areas they serve present unique challenges these innovations can help solve.

Of course, the average customer isn’t going to know all that information when they move to a new town and want to turn on the electricity at their home. All they’ll know is what they see on the co-op’s website, and for the growing number of people who grew up in the internet age, they have high expectations for that site.

To me and the people in my generation, your website is your front door (and one could make a compelling argument that Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are vying for that distinction). If it’s clean, well organized and professionally written, then we assume the company behind it must be too. It it’s not…well, you get the idea.

In the case of electric co-ops, the deck has already been stacked against them by an unfair and bogus stereotype. But whether a stereotype is right or wrong doesn’t change the fact that it exists. It just means you have to work twice as hard to overcome it.

Another challenge co-ops face is a lack of high-speed broadband access in many of the areas they serve. Some might think this lack of broadband means an up-to-date website is a bad idea. In reality, slow internet access is just another reason why it’s incredibly important that these organizations provide clean, simple, professional-looking pages. An old website that is poorly designed and has gotten cluttered with information over its life is more likely to load slowly and cause problems for end users. A skilled web programmer can work within those constraints to optimize the site – dial up will always be painfully slow, but steps can be taken to ease burden.

I singled out electric co-ops in this post because I’ve worked with so many of them, respect and enjoy the industry, and understand some of the unique challenges they face, but these principles apply to any industry (Remember we started out talking about a LinkedIn discussion among a bunch of PR people).

Most companies I know expect their employees to be neatly dressed so customers and clients will view them as serious and competent professionals. The same is true for your presence on the web and various social media channels. Don’t let your clients or customers see you sporting a digital mullet.