Social networking is everywhere. You can use it to book a reservation, review a restaurant, ogle at a friend’s vacation photos, find out who’s writing about what, interact with an old friend and make new ones. There are”Follow Fridays”, “must reads”, “likes”, “check-ins” and dozens of other ways to interact on today’s social networks. Online social networks have become so pervasive that social networking has overtaken porn as the No. 1 activity on the web, according to a recent story in Fast Company.
But do social networks really enable you to form real connections? There was a great story last week by Casey Johnston of ArsTechnica titled “How we ruin social networks, Facebook specifically.” In the story, Casey writes, “But the ability to keep tabs on someone without having to be proactive about it—no writing an e-mail, making a phone call, etc.—became the unique selling factor of Facebook….Facebook became a rich opportunity for ‘convert[ing] latent ties into weak ties,’ connections that are valuable because they are with people who are sufficiently distant socially to bring in new information and opportunities.”
“Weak ties” is the key phrase here. Can you really create a connection with someone when the only contact is online? I’ve “favorited” and “retweeted” hundreds of stories by editors on Twitter but that doesn’t mean I’ve engaged with anyone. I’ve “liked” posts on Facebook and have accumulated over 750 connections on LinkedIn, but does that mean anything? Maybe.
I think one of the traps PR people can fall into today is relying too heavily on online social media and ignore the social networks they can create offline. This can be as simple as jumping on a call a few minutes early to chat with a reporter or calling them for no other reason but to check in. It can be coffee or cocktails at a conference or breakfast at a trade show. It could be simply helping connect them with someone for a story they have to write to meet a deadline. And I mean a story that doesn’t include your company or client.
Trade shows and conferences are great ways to extend your social network in real life. We manage the press room at ITEXPO, one of the business technology industry’s top conferences on IP communications. Our job there is to make sure the media attending gets the most they can out of the show. During the few days the reporters are with us, they are slammed with sessions, briefings, keynotes and conversations. To give them some respite, we take them out one night for drinks and dinner, with no agenda but to give them a break from the craziness. When the telecom show SUPERCOMM still existed, we partnered with the great folks at Engage PR to host “No Pitch Nights” at Chicago White Sox and Cubs games. At these events, the only pitch was on the field. The connections we make during these events are anything but weak because they were built on real conversations and understandings, of mutual respect and discovering the things we had in common.
The tip here is to make sure you’re forming connections online and off so that your relationships are multi-dimensional and meaningful. Whether you’re comparing trade rumors for a favorite sports team, swapping stories on business travel nightmares or sharing what your kids are up to these days, it’s all about creating real connections. When you are able to cultivate these types of relationships, it will help you cut through the inbox clutter and secure a conversation for your company or client. When the story runs, then you can share it on social media and see how many “likes” you get from all the people you really don’t know.