Online Relationship in Business and Life. Are you keeping it real?

social media for business
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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.

Photo Credit: theirhistory via Compfight cc

3391454921_8d8e8dfb32_oBe 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.

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Een dronk op 1971 / A toast to 1971

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7 thoughts on “Online Relationship in Business and Life. Are you keeping it real?

  1. Well said, Amanda. I love your comment about thinking of online friends in quotation marks. That’s a common attitude, one that I am guilty of too. Interestingly, when I read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, I was fascinated to learn that many introverts are much more comfortable building relationships online than in real life. The internet gives them (us) enough protection to allow real vulnerability, enough distance to be emotionally intimate. Those online relationships can be very real, and, like you say, they follow the same rules of in-person relationships: don’t talk about yourself too much, invest time in the people you care about, apologize when you make mistakes, etc. You’ve said some important things here, and you’ve said them well.

    1. Thank you, Melanie. You’re right about introverts and building relationships online. Are you finding, as I am, that many businesses and organizations, however, are still hesitant to fully commit to online relationship development with customers, prospects, potential donors, etc.? I think it’s easier to commit to it if we accept those can be real and valuable relationships and deserving of our time.

      1. You’re right, there is still a lot of hesitation. But now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder if there is hesitation about “real” relationships too, as opposed to tasks, which are easier to measure and manage. For example, I’m thinking of a company whose Facebook pages I help manage. After several years of being on Facebook, and much positive interaction with constituents on those pages, there is still a feeling that writing FB posts and sharing photos is not “real” work. At this same company, the Sales staff have been encouraged to be more creative in building relationships with people, but there’s a sense that if they spend TOO much time having coffee with people, sending small gifts, or handwriting thoughtful cards, then their data won’t get entered and their reports won’t get done. In other words, even when a company says it values relationships—in person or online—it doesn’t exactly know how to value them because they really aren’t measurable. We can count the number of Likes on a Facebook page, but we can’t weigh the quality of a posted image. And all are reward systems are based on measurable data, so real relationships don’t get rewarded or encouraged—until they result in a measurable sale.

  2. That perception–that social media is not real work–is still prevalent and a reason many companies don’t hire for a dedicated staff person to carry out the researching, planning, participating, tracking, monitoring, interacting, etc. that it takes to do it well. For instance, if I “favorite” or reply to a tweet posted by a prospective student, that could be the tipping point between that student feeling more welcome and choosing one college over another. Of course, there is no way to measure that. Even if a student says that interaction made a difference, it was also part of a larger experience. Many aspects of which, as you mentioned, are not measurable…but need to happen nonetheless.

    Thanks, as always, for your valuable contributions to the comment section. I would take you to lunch, but I can only do that for every 20 comments you submit. Just my way of keeping things measurable…

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