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Meaningful Relationships With Social Networks

  |  July 10, 2007   |  Comments

With social networks, marketers must understand the fine line between a meaningful relationship and cheap one.

Lately I've been getting so many darn friend and connection invites that my head is spinning. From LinkedIn to Facebook to the all-too-common (and bogus) MySpace invite from the girl "who just broke up with [her] boyfriend and is just looking for fun," it's all getting a bit crazy.

Is spam king Sanford Wallace running this gig? Or am I just reliving Groucho Marx's famous quip, "I'd never join a club that would accept me as a member."

Don't get me wrong. Of course I want friends. Still, despite my elevation to various folks' A lists, I'm not sure I've earned my way or deserve such honors. It all just feels so casual and "what the heck, let's see if Pete bites."

Then again, it's so easy to say yes. Just click and confirm. "I don't really know you, but you seem like someone I should know," I keep thinking.

But at some point, you can't just say "yes" blindly. Friendship comes with obligations, responsibility, and some level of accountability.

Case in point: The other day, a semi-close contact (a loosely defined friend) sent me a somewhat desperate appeal to introduce him to a guy who, for the sake of this column, we'll call John Doe. Totally embarrassed, I shot back a flustered e-mail, asking, "Who exactly is John Doe?"

"Dude, he's a major recruiter," responded my loosely defined friend. "And he's one of your trusted contacts on LinkedIn. Tee me up! I really need the assist."

I felt like a fraud, a candidate for one of those "Ethicist" columns in "The New York Times Magazine." I could barely remember agreeing to be this guy's friend. Moreover, I felt as if my vain, egocentric need to pad my contact list backfired on me.

My sin was poignant and revealing. I'd said yes to friendship, a connection, I never intended to nurture. Now, I've paid the price in front of a loosely defined friend. Imagine if it had been a real friend who hit me up for a desperate favor. My street cred would be toast!

More recently, I've been deluged by friend or connection invites from Procter & Gamble (P&G) folks,. It's almost as if the CEO sent an e-mail to every employee, "OK, folks, go sign up for LinkedIn or Facebook." Beats me what's really going on, but folks I barely know (many I haven't even heard of) are asking to be my trusted connections.

This presents a dilemma. Who wouldn't want P&G folks on his contact list? In theory, this elevates my social currency. The more the merrier, right? But if the nature of these relationships is marginal, am I boosting or cheapening my own credibility? Moreover, and this is a big point, do I really want to get flooded with requests from other friends or, worse, dubious friends I mindlessly (or egotistically) checked off, looking for P&G connections?

Choices, Connections, Commitments

Turns out these ostensibly intimate social networks that have been thrust upon us have chinks in the armor, or at least a few critical nuances we need to work through. As we all seek to make our sites more Web 2.0, we may want to think about how we anchor our social networks to real intimacy, not loose phony connections.

"Web 2.0 is very open, but what become of the organizing principles which enable value or traction?" asks my ever-in-touch colleague Max Kalehoff. "How do you avoid becoming a whole lot of nothing? What becomes of the private, exclusive, invite-only networks? There's something to them. Means by which to codify the friendships and obligations are key."

Indeed. We certainly don't want to move to an elitist world, but we also don't want to overstate the value of a loose assemblage of quasi-familiars.

Beyond how we link our professional networks, many marketers offer advice to clients about social networks' potential. But as we stake out the value proposition, we must also understand the fine line between a meaningful relationship and peripheral, or cheap, relationships. It's not unlike trying to answer that critical question in advertising circles: what is meaningful engagement? Notes Kalehoff, "Different exposures have qualitatively and quantitatively different impact."

So as I fumble through my own parameters of intimate relationships, I've come up with a few caveats if you tee me up as a friend or contact to help manage expectations:

  • If you invite me to be your friend, don't be surprised if I wonder where you've been all these years.

  • If I say "yes," don't assume I'm serious about a meaningful relationship.

  • If you ask me to make a recommendation or intro on your behalf, I may do it, but more as a favor than as an honest objective assessment of that relationship.

  • If you have a huge network, I'll probably assume your ability to broker connections, invitations, or recommendations is somewhat limited.

But don't get me wrong. I still want friends. Really!

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Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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