How to Leverage “Weak Ties” to Connect Your Industry

by Dan Blank on August 24, 2009

In the past year, I have shared several examples of how social media can reshape our experience in this world:

Today, I would like to give an update on how I continue to see social media become more integrated into our lives, and consider how this will affect our business lives in the near future.

An article in The New York Times this week gave a glimpse into the new realities of family life:

“Things that I thought were unacceptable a few years ago are now commonplace in my house, like all four of us starting the day on four computers in four separate rooms.”

The Building Blocks of Communities

Loose connections (or weak ties) – are what a majority of communities are made of. The key to a good community organizer is the ability to connect these people by understanding their needs and motivations, and identifying easy ways to allow them to participate.

With this in mind, here is the value of social media:

Social media exposes more loose connections, and makes them tighter.

Let’s consider some recent examples I have witnessed in my personal life:

  • The NeverEnding Family Reunion
    A couple of weeks back, I wrote about my wife’s family reunion that brought together 50+ people, most of whom we see extremely rarely – perhaps once every 5 years.

    I took a ton of photos at the event, and encouraged people to join Facebook in order to see them. Amazingly enough, plenty of them did just that. The result so far? I have learned more about individual members of my wife’s family in mere moments of viewing their Facebook profiles, and am now get to experience their life as it happens.

    Sure, some people created an account sharing no information and no photo, but that’s fine. Let them step lightly and use the service to consume and not feed, there’s nothing wrong with that. I can only hope though, that one day they begin sharing so that I can have a small window into their lives.

    A recent study even suggests that people who stay connected via social media become closer than those who they only communicate with offline. Go figure.

  • Archiving a Family History
    The older I get, the greater appreciation I have for understanding where I come from, and the people who have shaped my family. To this end, I have been scanning in tons of old photos, taking hundreds more at each family event, and most recently, I have begun doing interviews with family members.

    Each week, I am connecting with my dad via iChat, and recording the video/audio of an hour-long interview. So far, I have had two sessions with him, and one with his sister. The information and stories I am learning are simply astounding. How I never did this before, is beyond me. I am slowly making my way through the family history, and will be adding other members to the interview list as time permits.

    So far, I haven’t exposed much from these efforts to other family members or to a larger community on the web. The interviews I am recording are somewhat personal and long – not the type of thing that most family members would want posted to the web unedited. But let’s look at a scenario if I did:

    If I was able to post my dad’s work history and his recollections to a website such as Facebook, perhaps it would lead to creating a group such as "I worked for American Express in the 1970s." Maybe I would mine the interview for names of co-workers and see if they are on Facebook, inviting them to join the group. I could do follow-up interviews with my dad about specific stories from that time period, posting them to the group and building an archive of names, projects and places. As we found more people from that time and place, we could give updates on what they did then and where they are now.

    Or… what if we created a Facebook group for people who grew up in the central Bronx in the middle part of the last century? As members joined the group, we could create a map of where people grew up in the neighborhood, who they are, and their stories. You could reunite schools, or even residents of a particular apartment building.

    What if a mere 600 people from my dad’s old neighborhood joined the Facebook group, and 10% of the shared 10 photos each from that era. That’s 600 photos that directly relate to my father’s childhood, and builds a cultural history of a particular time and place. That value becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and people’s individual roles have a more lasting effect.

  • Reconnecting with Old Friends
    Earlier this week, Facebook gave me another of those jaw on the floor moments, as an old neighbor sent me a friend request. I hadn’t seen him in about 20 years. We grew up together, and shared the awkward transition from obsessing over Star Wars, to obsessing over Duran Duran. No one said childhood was pretty!

    What does this mean? It means that if you painted a picture of the people who shaped my life, there is one less question mark along an important branch; It means that not only am I filled in on the past 20 years of his life, but I might be able to experience a small portion of the next 20.

How Businesses Can Leverage Loose Connections:
Let’s explore the value of social networks and loose connections to a business. We could be talking about a B2B media brand here (my favorite), a local record store, or most any business in between. Some potential tactics:

  • Collect Loose Connections

    This should be a hobby, like stamp collecting. Always consider who you are interacting with and how you are cataloging that interaction into a larger network.

    Most businesses have learned that their postal or email distribution lists are valuable assets – primary tools in marketing. How is this any different for social media?

    Create different strategies for Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook:

    • Twitter requires less reciprocity (you can follow people without permission).
    • LinkedIn requires the other part to accept a connection, but it is mostly a networking tool, so their are fewer barriers if they are familiar with who you are.
    • Facebook is much more personal – only connect with people who you have had a meal with or a long phone conversation. Don’t intrude on people’s personal lives if you don’t have a close enough relationship yet.
  • Share & Make it Easy for Others to do the Same

    Your acceptance in their networks will have a direct correlation to the value you bring. Perhaps you are well established in your industry – a power player with a long history of being someone who provides value. In that case – you should be able to build a sizable network quickly.

    But, if you are like most normal people, you have a core group of people who understand your value, and a wider group of people who have a sense of who you are, but no understanding how you can bring direct value to their lives.


    Your job is to make your value overt.

    There are many ways to do this, all involve sharing. Share good advice, useful information, a powerful connection, a compelling photo or other piece of content that has a positive affect on those in your industry.

    Likewise, make it simple for others to interact with your content and share some of their own. This could take the form of a compelling question, a status update that your network can really relate to, or even as simple as tagging a photo. Keep in mind that people have interests and passions beyond the nuts and bolts of business – this is a key to creating a deeper relationship.

  • Understand Your Industry Holistically

    Let’s say you are meeting with a marketing director for a major vendor – a meeting you are preparing for by checking out their work history on LinkedIn. But what if you were able to understand what was occupying their mind for the previous week – their successes, obsessions and challenges; what if you knew where they were coming from before your meeting and where they were going afterwards.

    If they are on Twitter and shared this kind of information, reading this would expose what you had in common, and help you more completely understand their motivation and needs.

    If for some reason, you had been able to connect with them on Facebook, you may even know that she has 3 kids, one of whom is starting the first grade in 2 weeks. Is this information useful? I think so – business is done via relationships and trust. When one parent can connect with another over common experiences, it is simply more likely they will find ways to relate in business too.

    Likewise, it offers small opportunities to help. Perhaps you read that this person was shopping for a new car, and was considering a model that you own. You could help them with a simple reply to their status update, or when you meet with them. Small things like this can make a big difference.

  • Listen with Respect

    Clearly, many folks would read what I describe above and shudder in fear – they don’t want colleagues knowing about their kids and their personal lives. I have heard of more than one case of people being afraid to Tweet that they are going on vacation for fear of being robbed while they are away.

    In my opinion, if you look at social media with fear, you will only find examples to back-up those fears. If you look to it as an opportunity, you will find just that.

    Share as much as you can, but only what you are comfortable with. When reading people’s status updates, listen, and do so with respect. Help where you can, and otherwise, withhold judgment and snarkiness. It’s just bad karma.

    Sometimes the best way to respond to an online communication is to reach out offline – bridging the gap between the two worlds. Picking up the phone is a viable response to a Tweet.

  • Reframe Your Competition

    In an age where media brands are shuttering, where all local small retailers are competing with big box stores, there is value in rethinking your relationship to "the competition."

    Find ways to partner, to create value for all involved, to make resources go further.

    The bottom line is that your business won’t succeed because you did 3% better than the competition, it will succeed because you drove revenue, profit and helped your customers. A healthy industry is one where multiple competitors can do just this – delivering MORE value, not reducing by value by viewing every other industry player as the enemy.

    Are there ways that you can partner in your efforts on LinkedIn? Can ReTweeting a competitor’s Twitter update help your followers? Can you partner to build something bigger than either of you could have separately? You don’t have much to lose in social media, but you have a lot to gain.

  • Stop Trying to Control

    Don’t let rules or established practices limit the value you can deliver to your audience. Likewise, don’t assume that you can only benefit when you control the process or content.

    I wrote a blog entry about this in July, describing the change to the media world framed around the concept of control. The Joker makes an appearance, so you might want to check it out.

    The overall point is that the role and value created by a business needs to be judged in non-traditional ways: a magazine might not earn as much revenue as they once did through display advertising; they might not like how a competitor uses their headlines; but, they could create an extremely profitable lead-generation business based on the relationship they have with their industry. If the brand spends their energy trying to control other people’s use of their headlines, they are busy defending, instead of building new value.

  • Find Small Ways to Connect Your Network

    Carefully consider the needs of the people in your network. If they are unemployed, consider how you can help them source jobs or grow their skills. Does a large part of your network reside in a certain city or region? Are there ways to connect them through meetups?

    Consider ways of segmenting and serving your network, with the goal of tying together as many people as possible.

The overarching goal here is to create more loose connections, and turn as many as you can into strong connections. Consider these questions:

  • Who do you call when you need a job?
  • Who do you call when you have a problem?
  • Who do you call when you need a specific piece of data?
  • Who do you call when you want to meet a certain person, role or business leader?
  • Who do you call when you need to brainstorm or are looking for advice?

For those in your industry, the answer to all of these questions should be the same: you.

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