In the not-so-distant past, the most common way people could distinguish themselves during a job search was to write a compelling cover letter or use persistent follow-up approaches.

Today, the sales pitch begins well before any first contact with a prospective employer. And if you're in a job search – you're in sales.

"More and more hiring managers are using online search techniques to mine for candidates," says Jennifer Brigham, president of Brigham Group Staffing, a contract and career placement firm based in Apple Valley. "That's why it's smart for job candidates to consider how these technologies can help sell their skills more effectively."

While a national unemployment rate over 8 percent makes the job market especially competitive, there are simple steps to help cut through the clutter. These include:

Establish And Manage An Online Presence

Regardless of a candidate's experience or career field, Brigham says they should establish an "online billboard," such as a LinkedIn page. Once that is in place, job seekers should carefully add details about their experience, seek and highlight references, and publish contact information. In addition, they should conduct regular online searches on their own name, so they stay abreast of flattering - or potentially unflattering - items that turn up.

Selling Key Skills

Name searches often work well to source candidates with highly visible professional or volunteer experience. On the other hand, many well-qualified job seekers will not turn up on a Google search, and have little interest in adding an online profile. In that case, Brigham suggests that candidates design and post an online résumé that calls out key skill areas.

"If I get a request from a manufacturing facility looking for someone who has run a specific type of press, I'll often go to Monster, Career Builder or the state Job Bank and do a keyword search for that machine or industry until I find people out there with résumés to match," she says.

Take A Proactive Approach

In this economic downturn, Brigham has heard many candidates say, "I'll do anything" in an attempt to gain interviews. While empathizing with their personal situations, she says that approach to employment marketing simply won't work in an overcrowded market. "Instead, candidates would be better served by seeking out special certifications, technical training, or anything else that helps them stand out from the crowd."

Brett Pyrtle is principal of Turning Point Communications LLC, a marketing communications firm based in St. Paul.