Every year, since 2007, I’ve made some personal branding predictions for the following year. In 2007, I predicted that we would see a surge in freelancers, which was accurate because 30% of all Americans are free agents now. I also mentioned that our education systems would start teaching classes around the new tools and web technology available then, and now many schools include it as part of their curriculum at some level, even if it’s meshed with a marketing or PR class. In 2008, I predicted that 2009 would be the year of inter-connectivity and systems that would make it easier to manage a personal brand. I also mentioned that there would be a shift from traditional to online advertising, and based on what I’ve seen we’re still headed in that direction. In 2009, I predicted that in 2010 personal branding would become more mainstream and that online background checks would be standard in the recruitment process. Microsoft reports that 80% of companies are using search engines and social networks as background checks.

I believe that 2011 will be a revolutionary and significant time for personal branding. Here are some of my predictions for next year and please feel free to comment on each of them individually or as a whole. I’m not going to talk about mobile and video because we’ve been predicting those two trends, along with everyone else, for years.

1. Your online personal brand will be consolidated

A lot of the social networks you’ve heard about in the past are dissolving because they’re unable to raise more venture capital and their business model hasn’t held up. Also, as people we don’t have enough time to invest in a hundred social networks, most of which don’t have millions of “active” users. Social networks, such as MySpace, are fading, and we’re start to see other niche networks suffer as well. We will also see the decline of Twitter and FourSquare next year. The reason is because Facebook has most of our data and relationships, as well as the capabilities that Twitter and FourSquare have now. Twitter was always a derivative of Facebook anyways, since it is a different adaptation of the Facebook news feed. Facebook “places” has and will eliminate the need for FourSquare (and it’s rivals).

This massive consolidation is going to make our lives easier because we will be able to monitor our brands on fewer services and not have to publish fresh content on multiple services everyday. The bad news is that much of the equity we’ve built up on these social networks will be lost in the process. In the end, we will be living in a Facebook and Google world, so if you’re going to invest your time in any services, they are the one’s that are positioned for success. Facebook’s new email platform (fb.com) may eventually supersede Gmail, so that’s something you should pay attention to as well. LinkedIn, which has 80 million users, will continue to grow and play more of a role in online recruitment.

Takeaway: Start investing more of your time on Facebook and LinkedIn, and less of your time on Twitter and lesser known social networks. Stop using FourSquare and other location-based services because when those companies collapse, you will lose all of your content and the network that you built up.

2) Soft skills become more important than hard skills

When enough people have similar talents, and are competing for the same positions and opportunities, the real differentiator is your interpersonal skills. The way you present yourself, how you communicate with other people, whether it’s in an interview or with management at work, can make or break you personal brand. More and more people are starting to realize that the little things matter, especially in our current competitive environment. A new research report by Kelly Services of over 100,000 people identifies “verbal communication skills,” as the top trait individuals need to have for their brands. Notice how technical knowledge isn’t rated as high. Ten years ago this chart would be much different, but now since we have access to so much knowledge online, through peers, and other resources, you’re competing on your network, your personality, writing, and how you speak to other people. Soft skills will continue to become more important to employers in 2011 and beyond.

Takeaway: Brush up on your soft skills if you want to secure a job or advance in your career or business. Soft skills include all forms of communication, including writing and spoken word, as well as how you interact online through social networks.

3) As the economy get’s better the war for talent ignites

I believe that the economy will get better next year, and we’re already seeing small signs of improvement. In October alone, 151,000 jobs were created. As we head into a free agent world, and the top talent has more options, the war for talent is going to be a war zone! For instance, Google just paid an employee $3.5 million dollars not to leave to work at Facebook. There are many more non publicized offers out there too.  Google is giving all of their employees a 10% raise for 2011, and other companies will have competitive offerings because your only as good as your talent. Nearly one-third of employers will be willing to negotiate salary increases for 2011 too. It’s obvious that recruiting and retaining talent is more challenging these days when the costs to starting a business have decreased substantially and when people can work anywhere in the world much easier because of technology.

The younger generation (namely Gen-Y) is becoming increasing hard to recruit and retain. In fact, 56% of Gen-Y leaves their first company within their first year. Companies need to figure out how to please younger workers, with perks and other elements, in order to get the best of the next generation of talent.

Takeaway: Despite the number of people still looking for jobs, the top talent will always win in a good or bad economy. As the war for top talent increases, the people who are best positioned to take advantage of it, will make a lot of money.

4) Social networks will become completely ineffective for one-to-many marketing efforts

The most popular, in terms of comments and shares, post I’ve written on this blog was calling an end to Twitter as a marketing platform. Ever since I published this post, there has been a lot of research developments to prove my hypothesis and main points. 71% of tweets are ignored, and only 6% of tweets are retweets, which used to be the most important statistic on Twitter until no one did it anymore. With 175 million users and 90 million tweets per day, there’s no doubt that your tweet won’t be seen by the vast majority of your followers. This is true of all social networks too, not just Twitter. These networks are meant as one-to-one personal communication devices and can’t be use as email marketing campaigns unless you’re Lady Gaga or Coca Cola, where people are dying to hear from you. Remember that the more effort someone puts into connecting to you, the more valuable they are to your career and business. Twitter followers are weak connections because there is no forced reciprocation.

Takeaway: If you’re going to use social networking to build your brand and expand your presence, it’s in your best interest to grow your community through individual connections and word-of-mouth rather than mass marketing.

5) Personal brands have more responsibilities

There have been a few big developments this week that have me to seriously consider exploring our rights and responsibilities as brands. For instance, Amazon.com is selling a “Pedophile” book on their website. They didn’t publish the book, but are responsible for distributing it to their global audience as an online retailer. In this way, they are perceived to have endorsed the book, and now they’re seeing a lot of negative coverage because “Pedophile’s” are damned in this society. There are even Facebook pages that are protesting. If you have a blog, a social network, or another platform, you are also a distributor, and you have to be careful of what you publish or someone else publishes on your platform.

The National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency which tries to remedy unfair labor practices, filed a complaint against American Medical Response of Connecticut, which terminated an employee after she vented about another co-worker on Facebook. This is a major development because it will set a precedent for future occurrences. Regardless of what the judge rules, you should never publish anything negative about your manager or company because it will come back to haunt you in multiple ways. If this person isn’t fired, they will have no internal or external opportunities because no one will trust them.

Takeaway: Use common sense when you publish online, thinking about the end result of your actions. Think of yourself as a distributor of content, not just a publisher or reader. Whatever you publish, you endorse and that can hurt your brand.

6) Social media becomes widely used in the workplace

In the workplace, employee aren’t just using their corporate email anymore. They are on Facebook (58.5%), LinkedIn (47.9%), and some are even on Twitter (22.6%). More employees check their personal email at work over their work email. What this tells me is that our lives are becoming increasingly complicated and converged with technology. Personal and professionals lives are combining and new challenges will arise. One challenge is ensuring your online and offline brand are consistent, and not conflicting with your corporate goals and values. Since more than half of workers are using Facebook at work now, it’s critical that you understand who your audience is on Facebook. You don’t want to publish status updates if your co-workers can see them because then it show’s that you’re not being productive.

Takeaway: Be smart about how you interact online because it might impact your offline brand. People will not only judge you based on physical interactions, but what they read about you online.

7) People establishing their online brands earlier in life

One of the most exciting trends is that people are starting to brand themselves earlier in life now. In fact, 92% of toddlers already have an online presence, which their parents actually create for them. Back in 2006 and 2007, we saw parents purchasing their children’s domain name’s before they were born and hiring people to give their babies unique names so they’re “google’able.” I also predict that more high school’ers will elect to get internships, start part-time jobs, and build their online presence before college and to get into a better college. Tufts University allows applicants to submit video resume’s now too. The sooner you start to identify your brand and develop a strong presence, the more successful you will be later in life.

Takeaway: It’s never too early to start building your brand, and it’s never too late. You need to come up with a brand strategy and development plan if you want to be successful. I bet a lot of people wish that they had started their blog in 2004 instead of 2010.

Your turn

What personal branding trend do you see surfacing next year?