What OkCupid taught me about personal branding

I got into online dating the same year I broke into marketing. I’d spent two years trying to figure out life after college, working a variety of dead-end jobs and dating an equally diverse variety of dead-end guys. From a sociopathic gamer to a grownup music nerd with a Dyson, and from a bottom-rung cashier job at Books a Million to my first 9-5 gig that required my degree, it was an interesting two years trying to find out what I wanted and needed, both professionally and personally. I had decided to make the leap from technical writing to marketing around the time I went through a devastating breakup. A year later, I was starting to make headway in my new field and was ready to date again.

That’s when I found OkCupid.

Signing up for OkCupid felt a lot like applying for a job. Answering questions about my likes and dislikes, my qualifications and skills. Writing the About Me section felt a lot like a cover letter. Going on dates felt a lot like going on job interviews.

I had been working hard on my personal brand for two years, although I hadn’t known that’s what I was doing. Those years of exploration had given me a lot of information to sift through about who I was and how I wanted to present myself to others. As my career got its slow, faltering start, I overhauled my work wardrobe, got my first apartment, and started trying to make some post-college friends. It turns out those aesthetic, existential, and social questions I asked myself were also informing the way I wanted my potential boyfriends to see me, and the kind of men I hoped I could attract.

The first version of my OkCupid profile depicted me as smart, nerdy, and a little uptight. If I’m honest, in hindsight, I wrote it not to advertise who I was, but who I desperately wanted to be. The girl known as EmmieO was an awkward mashup of my real self (loves comics! writes for a living!) and the person I thought I should be (career focused! into politics!). It was apparently a pretty good profile—I met a guy who was actually perfectly suited to the girl in it and it lead to a year long relationship. He was a mixture of everything I’d wanted in a boyfriend since high school and qualities I thought boded well for this new, adult phase of our lives. He had a hip leather jacket and wanted to get a tattoo of Jean Gray from X-Men, but he also had a good advertising job, not unlike the positions I’d been applying for.

The problem, it turned out, was that we were both newbie marketers and social media managers. We both knew enough about our profession to understand what read well online, what people wanted to hear, and how to get someone to successfully convert browsing online to whipping out their credit card. We both had created online dating profiles that perfectly captured who we wanted to be, and who we genuinely thought we were (at least to some extent). He told me he loved to cook, that he loved hiking, that he didn’t play video games. His photo made him look like a baby-faced Lord Byron withering in a wheat field. I was smitten.

Yet over the next year of our courtship, I discovered that by “loved to cook,” he meant “loved to attend dinner parties and good restaurants”; that by “loved hiking,” he meant that he’d sleep in while I went up to the mountains with his roommates; and that by “didn’t play video games,” he meant that he did, but only if I had a book to keep me occupied. I’m sure he had his disappointments, too. The pretty, professional girl he agreed to meet for a date was insecure, anxious, and had a serious shopping problem. She lived in a filthy apartment that he found it hard to spend time in. None of those things were part of the personal brand I tried to project, and he found them out anyways. It wasn’t far off from my first supervisor’s disappointment to find that the copywriter she hired, who had such a good resume, didn’t have the Chicago Style Guide memorized and chafed under a 1980s management style. She took long lunches and disregarded authority.

Since then, I’ve redone my OkCupid profile a few times, each a social experiment to see how minor changes, tweaks, and almost satirical extensions of my real personality and tastes affect who messages me. I rarely message anyone back, and my intention is never to lead anyone on. Instead, it’s a rare opportunity to explore how your personal brand comes across; what works and what doesn’t. There’s more room to play than there is in the professional realm, where I find I constantly need to project a more conservative, extroverted, upbeat version of myself—one who can talk about facials and sports with the zeal I normally reserve for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and tarot cards. Online dating gave me a safe place to practice my persona, the face I present to the world, and experiment with how much of the truth to give away at first, to see where the gaps lie between what people say they want and what they are really looking for.

OkCupid taught me important lessons about my personal brand. It’s hard in dating, as in marketing, to find that sweet spot between honesty and too much information; between palatability and authenticity. I learned that projecting who you want to be will only disappoint your dates (or your customers), and that front-loading your faults from the get go only attracts weirdos. Just like it’s hard to feel someone out through small talk at a networking event—to find where the lines are drawn and what you can and cannot say—it’s hard in online dating to find the best way to present yourself. Even for the Myspace generation who grew up answering surveys and doing quizzes and perfectly curating the bands on their profiles to be a deep anagram of the soul, it’s hard to suss out a spot-on personal brand. Yet thanks to online dating, it was an easier process than it might have been to learn what I want to project to the world, both at a bar and in the boardroom.

Meghan O’Dea is an essayist who lives in the Deep South. She lives in a small orange bungalow with two little black kittens, one angry grey cat, and the ghost of an unlucky opossum. She loves whiskey, cheese, biographies of Edwardian heiresses, and convincing the neighborhood children that she is a witch.

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