Networking Online and Offline

Networking is a topic near and dear to my heart. Every single opportunity I’ve had in my lifetime to date has been born out of a relationship initiated by me or someone else. You can probably say the same. In my case, maybe it was a connector who introduced me to my former employer. Maybe it was me extending my hand for the first time and finding the next person I would decide to work on a project with. Maybe the relationship was born out of small talk waiting in line somewhere. Those of you that read this blog, and know me in real life, probably have an interesting story about how we met.

I found myself thinking about the topic of how networking has changed in my recent trip to SXSW Interactive. Think about the startups generating the most buzz coming out of SXSW in the past couple of years. There’s Highrise, GroupMe, Twitter, Forecast, Plancast, and Foursquare (this list could easily be 50 companies long, but you get the point). What do they all have in common? In one way or another, they help us to connect easier with one another. Isn’t that what social media is all about?

For the social media-savvy group, which I consider myself a member of, it’s helped us to develop hundreds (if not thousands) of new connections that wouldn’t have been possible using traditional networking. By traditional networking, I mean getting out there and meeting people in real life. It would take a lifetime of traditional networking to make the connections we can make in a few months using social media. Would you have known that the woman you work with went to school with your best friend’s fraternity brother? Nope, not without LinkedIn. How about the dozen or so people in your city you know through Twitter now? How long would it have taken to meet them the old-fashioned way? You probably would never have met them.

So it’s easier to connect online (and I’m using “online” loosely – it’s more mobile than online these days). I question whether online can help you develop the most meaningful relationships though. How many times have you connected with somebody at an event, only to find out you were already following each other on Twitter? It happens to me all the time. There’s too much information online. To build meaningful relationships, I think we need the offline component. As I walked the halls of SXSW, everyone was looking down at their iPhone or Android devices – it’s hard to make eye contact with somebody without a concentrated effort.

As an experiment, I chose to tweet less and make eye contact more at SXSW this year. Rather than scanning check-ins and tweets to see who was in the room, I went up and talked to people. I broke the ice with a handshake instead of an @ reply or DM. The result? I met some pretty cool people. I got these things called business cards – pieces of paper with contact information on them. I won’t call out all the people that I met in this post, but I will encourage you to evaluate how you’re currently going about your networking in 2012.

If you’re focused on building a following, that’s a quantity play. It’s a useful strategy for a lot of reasons, some akin to traditional advertising models where reach and frequency help you build brand awareness. It’s important to build brand awareness – whether for the organization or products you represent or for yourself (I tend to put more emphasis on the latter). With reach, you can get your message out to a lot of followers. With frequency, you can build recall and retention for your message. In the process, you build your reputation as an information source.

In the offline world, things are less cut and dry. It’s one thing to make a connection and start a relationship. From there, it’s the follow-up that matters. I content that a reputation is more than your follower count or Klout score. To build a reputation, you have to build relationships that give people some context over time. Online channels can help you accelerate this, but it takes a combination of both. A lot of us are just starting to figure out the balance.

How do you build the relationship from there using online and offline channels? This is where the real power in social media comes from. When you can start a relationship offline – or convert an online relationship to an offline one – you can really start to forge meaningful relationships that can help you accomplish your goals as a professional. Whether your goal is to find a new client or job or help connect job seekers to their dream job. This is just one lens to look at things through, but one that’s been on my mind since the clouds parted at SXSW to shine a light on some relationships I hope to nurture in the weeks and months to come.

When you boot up tomorrow and start flooding your streams with useful information for your audiences, pay attention to the people you’re interacting with. How well do you know them? How can you build that relationship beyond a tweet exchange here or there? For me, I’ve got a bunch of appointments scheduled. And I’m looking forward to organizing a meetup or two in Atlanta once the pollen washes out this spring (for those of you not in the Atlanta area, the pollen is horrible this time of year – it’s a blanket of yellow everywhere you look).

You know how to build a following with social media. For a lot of us, it’s what we’ve been focused on the past couple of years. I think now is the time to get back to real networking. That’s my focus for now. Here are some quick reminders for building relationships in the real world:

  • Find People That Share Your Passion – do you love lacrosse? How about blogging? Startups? I love all three. I tend to spend time in groups of people who like the same things as I do. It’s easier to find these commonalities with social media. There’s no excuse not to anymore. When you circulate with people with similar interests, amazing things can happen. And, you always have a common thread that binds you. At SXSW this year, I knew the founder of a well-known start-up went to Syracuse. I reached out through Twitter to ask him where we was watching the game. Not only did I get to have a few beverages with him, but I met the crew that manages social media for the University. How cool is that? I transformed online into offline (and got a snazzy SU t-shirt out of it too).
  • Follow Up – it’s easy to get cards. In the professional world, this is the equivalent of getting digits. Don’t let the cards collect dust on your desk. Do something with them. I like to enter them into LinkedIn’s CardMunch tool (very cool). This tool is the perfect definition of my offline to online transition – you take a picture of your card and connect with people through LinkedIn. From there, it’s easier to follow up and build the relationship.
  • Ask, “How Can I Help?” – make it about them, not you. I learned this lesson the hard way early on in my career, when I was only interested in networking for my own personal gain. I wanted more contacts. I wanted to land more clients. I wanted to get a better job. It was all about me, and then a friend called me out on it. She said, “What do you want? You only want to meet up when you want something.” Ouch. From that day forward, I always asked myself, “What can I do to help this person?” Are they trying to find a job? Who do I know? Are they trying to raise awareness for a cause I believe in? How can I get the word out? Is there somebody in my network that things the same way he/she does? Can I connect them somehow? The answers to these questions have helped me dramatically increase my network through helping others. My value has increased, and as an interesting byproduct, so too has the quality of my life.
  • Get Out There – it’s easy to get stuck in your Twitter stream. I could spend a day on Twitter managing my interactions – I don’t anymore. I try to find events around town (or in other cities I visit) where I can meet new people. My goal is to meet new people that share my passion about transforming how journalists and sources connect (see ExpertEngine on that front). What’s your goal? How can you find people that share the same interests? That’s where you want to be hanging out. Use online channels to find new places to meet people offline.
  • Don’t Be Shy – I’m a talker, but I’m shy like a lot of you. Shyness is like a high school dance. Until somebody makes a move, you all stand around staring at each other across an empty dance floor. Don’t be that person. Introduce yourself and get things going. At SXSW, four of the coolest connections I made came while I was flying to Austin from Atlanta, riding a shuttle to the conference center, waiting in line to pick up my badge, and waiting for my check at a restaurant. I could have just sat there, and I would have never met those people. Don’t miss an opportunity to make a new connection.

So here’s your first challenge in this online/offline thing I’m rambling about. Leave a comment on this blog and tell me who you are. I want to know who is reading this stuff I’m putting up there. If you’re in Atlanta or San Francisco, two cities I frequent, let’s figure out a way to meet up. Maybe you can help me pull together a meetup – or we can just grab coffee. I look forward to meeting you.

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