As I have been recently cruising through the startup space of social and business networking, I, like anyone, will pause to examine LinkedIn – the business model, the challenges, the opportunities.
It’s a great case study. LinkedIn was one of the first of its kind and definitely the first in its category to achieve the scale and scope necessary to claim ownership over a defined space. It is to business networking what amazon is to online retail. The survivor, AND the thrivor (if that’s a word. Doubt it.). The proposition as detailed in the pitch deck was/is to find and contact the people you need through the people you trust. Makes sense. A broad scope of credible contacts is clearly a desirable ingredient to move your career along. So why not join?
Up until recently, many of us have seen the platform as the clearing house of business contacts, and we have happily completed profiles and maintained engagement against the promise of some future benefit once all of our peers are on board. As I see it, tomorrow has arrived and with it has come rising expectations of outcomes from LinkedIn’s members.
What I see is a mounting conundrum. LI has this pile of users and is working through the delicate balancing act of living into a vision and serving the customers while simultaneously profiting from them. We users are more simple minded; we look to LI to create a satisfactory experience by delivering on the expectations that come with being ‘connected’.
The bar is now raised as we move into phase 2.0, the phase that comes after critical mass of membership has been established. LI will need to show the way as the leading platform for networking and managing professional relationships. Success will depend on a strong connection to the insights about such relationships – how they are formed, strengthened and deliver value. For startups are now emerging, recognizing the kinks in LI’s armor, and searching for ways to better service needs.
As I survey all networking solutions and consult with some, I’m looking forward to see to what extent they learn and adapt, pivoting on these following tenets which are rapidly becoming truths:
Relationships are based on value exchange.
Pause for a cultural aside. I never answer my phone, unless it’s my boss or a close family member. I also rarely check snail mail. Why? Because no one is ever contacting me to help me. Everyone wants something from me and in the case of the phone they will somehow think they are now the priority. I no longer bite. My approach has been conditioned over time thanks to years of consistent interactions. There’s an insight there that applies to this section.
The best online platforms function as a marketplace to bring together both (!) buyers and sellers. If you have too much of one and not enough of another, you create an imbalance that makes for not only a lack of ongoing satisfaction with the experience but also a number of plain awkward interactions. This is actually a common problem with digital creations – a 21st century version of why bars and clubs have ladies nights.
A recent article on Forbes outlines this very issue. The estimate by the writer is a mere 1-2% of networking experiences prove to be successful for job searching. Why? Networking works best on occasions where each gives something to the other, yet most outreach is all about a one-way objective. And, truthfully, there is a limited appetite for ongoing charity within the LinkedIn platform. LI is a digital environment where need-based usage occasions dominate over help-based. I mean, how many of us look at our 500 contacts as a world of people we can support? (We all know the answer and you don’t have to say it out loud.) To us, our contacts are predominantly seen as vehicles to uplift our careers. That asymmetry of purpose is an inherent problem right out of the gate.
And you see the evidence of discontent bubbling to the surface more regularly. My feed now includes a number of posts and articles that wonder aloud how to best approach someone for help who might not be willing….as well as posts complaining about the incessant business overtures that come shortly after accepting an invitation to connect. I’m seeing memes now that start with “that time on LinkedIn when…” There’s some muttering going on, and it’s getting louder.
LinkedIn does provide one strong benefit to users and that’s passive job opportunities. I, like many, get pinged from companies looking to engage my services in many capacities, such as speaking, consulting or of course a full time job. Most of us, though, don’t benefit in this way so it is thus far a niche perk. LinkedIn tries its best, but for now somehow thinks that the jobs it picks ‘just for me’ should be in a distant location and in another functional area. *shrug*
Right now, for the bulk of users, LI functions as a professional database and for that service, we are subject to repeated overtures from the company to buy its services, engage in various ways, or pull more contacts in. I’m not even counting the requests from contacts.
There is no (substantial) market for ‘connections’.
…and without much of a playbook going in and a very one-sided appeal (‘find the people you need’) you end up with giant web of little productive activity.
I have actually said this subheader to a few founders – and rattled them in the process. Emerging platforms are championing the benefit of more/better connections as the reason to join, thinking that once people are connected they will figure out why. Problem is, society is moving past what was once a sexy proposition.
Think about it. Who dreams about just having more people connected into their life? No one. Gosh we have a tough enough time maintaining contact with friends, family and the, oh, 1200 friends we have on Facebook. We don’t seek to haphazardly add to the pile. What we do dream about are friendships, dating, more people to sell to or conduits to get us a better job.
Connections are a means to an end, and if we don’t define the ‘end’, we risk serving no one. Two people can be connected and then what? That playbook I talked about isn’t there. There are no defined obligations of service, there is no socially appropriate requests you know you can make.
The more productive networking activity happens among parties who are naturally closely connected (i.e. they work together or have a solid professional history). As for the rest, it’s unclear. What’s worse, LinkedIn pushes you to add to your network after mining all email addresses that have ever passed through your account, yet these are the contacts that provide the least amount of certainty of value. A problem compounded.
I will concede that LinkedIn has become much more transparent about the purpose of creating a global network of connections. Just like how Facebook wishes to draw a map of how people interact socially, LI wishes to create a global map of how business is done, so that it can take the next steps to match skills and offerings to needs. We’re a long ways off from seeing the fruits of this pursuit though. I question how long users will stick around while these digital pyramids are theoretically built.
Relationships are sealed and nurtured through timeliness, relevancy and impact.
I call these ‘moments’.
A driver of relationships that’s going out of style is the idea of frequency – the relentless pursuit of being top of mind.
Our networks are broad, and the idea of working them constantly is becoming outdated. And we can look to our personal lives for cues. Do you have friends that you only see or even talk to once a year or less…but value just as much as some others who are more embedded in your lives? Exactly. Because that person has made an impression on you – a positive one. And impressions are lasting.
Those impressions weren’t made through constant attention; they were made because they had impact. Adding in notions of timeliness and relevancy delivers great power. Giving flowers just cuz, saying ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong’ or being present for a wedding or funeral can strengthen a personal relationship immensely. And in business, while you can forward interesting articles or say ‘Happy Birthday’ all you want, your connection doesn’t establish meaning unless you’re one of the first to swoop in and help – unprompted – if your connection loses their job unexpectedly. Or, you partner up to create material success in their work. It’s the power of the need, the relevancy of the help and the timeliness of the interaction that creates these binding moments. It only needs to happen once. And similarly, your connection can fade if you can’t be counted on the one or two times in our life when we really need support. I mean, really.
Relationships are medium agnostic.
So yes, I see the cement of a relationship to be based on that value exchange, and importantly, the impact of that value across the dimensions already discussed. How we make that happen, is of lesser concern.
I think I’m one of the minority who does not equate ‘digital’ with ‘impersonal’. In my mind it’s simply an added dimension – another tool in the kit to acquire, preserve and nurture a relationship. The notion of not being able to have meaning in a person’s life from afar is to me preposterous; in fact, these so-called impersonal media do exactly the opposite. They are vehicles to build and deepen relationships in all corners of the globe.
Many emerging apps and networking solutions see the antidote to LinkedIn’s impersonal proposition as more face-to-face connection. While on the surface the idea can generate a quick head nod, I see the potential for such a business to be limited. The main reason is that the value proposition doesn’t scale. Count how many people are in your network and then divide that by the number of days in the year to determine how many live chats you’d need (like, daily) to maintain your network. Too many, especially when you consider how often you can barely manage to visit your own parents.
In-person chats do still play a role, so I wouldn’t completely discount them. They work best for more complex or high value, two-way exchange. I repeat, exchange. Otherwise, they can be beneficial to help gain credibility in select meetings where your connection is clearly open to a more charitable circumstance.
Since live meetings are less practical – there are about a dozen in my network for whom I can carve out that kind of time – embrace the use of digital methods. Focus more on the context and the content of your engagement to make true impact.
Relationships are both a journey and a destination.
This last one is more personal counsel than it is a directive to social networking platforms. Your best opportunities to network live are in situations where you aren’t actually networking. My advice to you is to believe that every live encounter is an opportunity. Take it upon yourself to impress….like…everyone. Always. Your teachers, your co-workers, your boss, your agencies, your barista, your neighbor’s mom. That’s the essence of live networking – building it every day by creating great impressions. Accumulate merit by donating time or brain power on the regular; that’s called maxing out the return on investment in time spent with people.
A few years ago, I got a message through LI from a former colleague at Johnson & Johnson who worked in a completely different department. We hardly worked together directly and I hadn’t been in contact with him in over five years as I moved away from Philadelphia back to Toronto. He asked me what I was up to and commented that he remembered how smart and personable I was. His new company was looking for a CMO and would I be interested in coming in to talk to his team.
I was blown away that he thought of me after all that time. But right then and there I realized THAT’s what live networking is – consciously and subconsciously expanding the number of people who think you are awesome with every interaction. Your network is a byproduct of who you are and what you do every day. If you see it as an activity that begins only when you need help, you are so far behind the 8-ball you can’t even see the pool table.
Now there’s definitely a huge lesson for networking platforms. The monster opportunity is to conceive of something that tags along with whatever we do in life professionally. The more it feels like a platform that requires you carve out time to assert your presence and build your personal brand, the more clunky the solution.
To illustrate, think business cards. You don’t press pause on your life for a few hours to hand out cards. It just happens when meaningful contacts are made. So, what’s the 21st century iteration? Not sure. But I figure at some point I’ll just wave my phone across yours and thanks to NFC and cutting edge architecture, POOF: our professional lives are seamlessly interconnected. Whoever figures that out will dominate the space.
Our jam-packed weeks go by slowly yet the years, they fly by. More and more of us feel overwhelmed yet we’re able to keep more balls in the air. Almost without realizing it, we are discovering time efficiencies in our routines, the biggest of which being the way we communicate and interact.
In less than a decade we have migrated and expanded much of our relationship management activity into the digital space. This phenomenon has spawned a ‘feed’ mentality, as evidenced by our email, texting and social media activity both in and out of the workplace. And now, we’re culling, subconsciously measuring benefit as we unfollow and apply filters much more readily than we did in the past when we had such an appetite to be pelted with info, inspiration, fun and perfunctory help in what is very much a need to share society.
Similarly, with not only LinkedIn but also with emerging platforms, we seek high ROI on our time in the way we’re learning to socially. The ROI is generated by value exchange and the power of the impression we make. It’s affected less by distance, frequency and medium.
So as we move forward, that’s the challenge facing all players in the networking space. How can we efficiently come to know each other and the abilities we have? How do we uncover each other’s needs in a way that isn’t too personal or even invasive? And importantly, how do we condition ourselves to understand that networking is a daily routine exercise and not a distinct, additive, need-driven pursuit?
LinkedIn: you have all my info, you see what I do, you (now) know what makes a real impression…so how can you help me?
Your move. We’re all watching.
To illustrate how perfect moments (timely, relevant…) make impact, watch this heartwarming video from 2014 on the random acts of kindness played by Kansas City police dept.