The key to success in online social networking is striking the right balance between personality and professionalism, but it’s more an art than a science. How you chose to weave together what you do and who you are defines your personal brand.

Social media is inherently personal. When you limit yourself to only professional or business messaging in social media settings, you miss opportunities to leverage the power of the personal to make connections and engage people.

People do business with people they know, like and trust

Anyone who’s had any business success knows that personality and close personal relationships make a difference. Many businesses sell products and/or services that are largely undifferentiated from their competitors. Despite what the marketers will say, these products and services are far more similar than different.

The real differentiator is often personality and relationships. All else being equal, a prospect will choose to do business with someone they know, like and trust more. It’s just human nature.

Personalizing social media helps to define your brand and gives people opportunities to get to know you better.

Here are some tips for mixing the personal and professional into your social media activities:

1. Tell your story

Everyone has a story. It explains how you arrived at this point in your career, the trials you endured and/or successes you built on. Your story probably has a defining experience that helped you choose your particular business or particular approach to it. Your authentic story is the foundation of your personal brand. Know it, tell it and build on it.

2. Differentiate your professional expertise

Professional competence is table stakes in online social networking. Differentiate yourself by focusing on issues or topics in which you have personal knowledge or experience. For instance, as an advisor you’ll have a good general understanding of financial matters, but you may also have a particular interest and expertise in long term care issues because you are helping to care for an aging parent. You can’t be everything to everyone, so focus on being something to someone.

3. Share what you care about

We all care about something and/or someone and sharing these feelings creates opportunities to connect with others. People can’t get to know, like and trust you unless you share some personal stuff. But this can get tricky, so my advice here is to stick to “motherhood and apple pie” – literally and figuratively. For example, a topic such as parenthood has almost universal appeal, so appropriately sharing your parenting observations can be a window into your heart. As for the apple pie, there are few things better than a fresh baked one, so share some passion for the food that you love.

4. Know how much is too much

There is a line, beyond which people may feel a sense of TMI – “too much information” is being shared. While there is no universal TMI rule, each person needs to embrace their own personal brand and make it work for them. Having said that, your are well-served to avoid the topics of politics and religion, unless your business is directly related to either. Everyone is entitled to private thoughts and views and in many cases it makes sense to keep them private and separate from your personal brand.

5. Engage people when they reach out

Keep an eye on your Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ notifications and make time to reach out to people who share your content or respond. Think of a share as if someone walked past you in a crowded room, pat you on the back and said within earshot of everyone: “Hey, that was helpful article. Thanks!” Respond online exactly how you would offline. Say thanks and wish them well. Then, look for an opportunity to pay the favour back.