by Amanda Cleary Eastep
Is it possible to form “real” relationship via the Internet?
To build a loyal tribe for your organization? To make genuine professional connections? To develop true friendships?
My teenage daughter knew the answer was YES to all of the above years before I accepted it. She has friends (who I no longer think of inside quotation marks) she has never met face to face. What I discovered over the past several years as I managed social media for a college and built my freelance business was that building online relationship isn’t a fad, it’s a necessity.
I also learned that many of the same rules apply whether you are communicating with customers, networking with fellow professionals in your industry or developing and nurturing friendships (or some combination thereof). They are also the same rules that apply to relationships IRL (in real life).
If you have a small business or nonprofit and are still wondering if there is value in engaging with customers and prospects online, quit wondering. The answer is Yes, and it will be tomorrow. Yes, it requires time out of your busy day but so do other important relationships.
Developing “Real” Online Relationship
Be authentic (but not transparent). Remember that science-y toy from the 70s? The one made of clear plastic, shaped like a human body and filled with realistic-looking guts? Great analogy. You can be yourself online but don’t have to–and shouldn’t–reveal every detail of your lunch (unless you’re a restaurant reviewer), vacation photo or polarizing political cartoon. Yet, by being yourself–or maybe your business casual version–you’ll enjoy a more authentic exchange with like-minded people. You’ll attract more of your ideal “profile” customers. And you’ll meet folks who have the same heart you do for a cause.
Be vigilant…with yourself. Don’t write or say anything online you wouldn’t say to someone’s face…or that you wouldn’t say in front of your mother (unless your mother is the devil). This is a good rule for daily living we don’t heed often enough, and ESPECIALLY online where it is so much easier to react than to choose our words wisely. But, as we all have on occasion, we may express something we soon regret.
The problem with that is that thousands of people may read it. But what we communicate next can say even more about us. Marketing blogger and consultant Mark Schaefer recently wrote a post about regretting a reaction he had to a reader’s comment. I appreciated the post, which is a good lesson in being authentic even if you have failed to be your usual vigilant self.
Take time. Good relationships, including those online, take time to develop and nurture. But who has time for social media, blogging and tweeting? Actually, you can’t afford NOT to communicate online, but you can be choosy and concentrate on the best conduit for that communication depending on what best meets your customers needs and fits your gifts as a communicator. Trying to network with fellow professionals? For me, the greatest connections have come through blogging communities. As with people you encounter face to face, you can quickly gauge which groups offer quality discussion and show respect for participants.
Focus that time. Choose the channel your customers use most and you are most comfortable using or learning to use, whether Facebook or Twitter or blog posts, for example. For networking, find one or two blogs or LinkedIn groups you enjoy and learn from and engage there regularly. By narrowing down the online channels you most use for business or networking, you will more readily work social media into your overall marketing plan, and you will avoid the daily frittering away of hours reading and commenting on random blogs.
Care like you do IRL. If you’re in this whole online and/or social media thing just to benefit yourself, your career and your business, then you may not be the first person people invite to the cookout either. When certain online relationships begin to grow deeper, it’s because trust has been built. That trust comes with consistency in what you say; how you respond to what others say; and how much of the content you share benefits people.
Meet IRL. One of the best online communities I have discovered in my industry is the SpinSucks.com group of “crazies.” (Every industry has many wonderful communities to choose from.) “I’m gonna like these people,” I thought, when I first read Gini Dietrich’s blog. But the best discovery came when I met many of these “crazies” (note that Gini has given a fun name to her tribe and one we tout proudly) in real life at a conference in Chicago.
The fact that it was like getting together with long-distance friends you care about but don’t get to see often validated for me how real–and how important–online relationship is in business…and in life.