Social Media – How to get the most from it

In terms of social media, there seems to be a big disconnect between two groups of people that I work with: largely self-employed professionals and executives in larger organisations. The first group have, by-and-large, embraced social media whereas the second struggle to understand its value and how to use it to their benefit.

In the ‘offline’ world – the world of companies, offices, local communities, clubs and societies, councils and so on, people get to know one another slowly. People from ‘the city’ often joke that although they have lived in a village for a decade or more, they are still referred to as ‘newcomers’ and treated a little as ‘outsiders’.

In the commercial world, different people have different tolerances that determine when, if ever, they will help someone, the amount of effort they will put in, and the extent to which they will risk their own reputation in doing so.

In the past, you would have had to go through, what was often, quite a drawn out process to be recommended by a couple of friends to join a particular network. These networks ranged from local Chambers of Commerce, Round Tables, Rotary Clubs, Golf Clubs (!), District Councils, local ‘quangos’, political parties, Gentlemen’s Clubs, the City Guilds, and, of course, the Freemasons. It was widely known that the members of these could and would do ‘favours’ for one another, but it wasn’t as simple as being a member that determined what would happen. Not only was there a drawn out process to decide whether you could join, but once you had there was still a long process before you would be likely to receive those ‘favours’.

Different authors have different ways of describing the sales funnel that takes the ‘public’ through to being ‘prospects’ and thence to ‘customers’. This is all about building a relationship, albeit a rather distorted one. One way of seeing the process by which someone becomes trusted enough to receive our ‘favours’, has been very well described by one of the founders of ecademy, Penny Power, in her book; “Know Me, Like Me, Follow Me“.

People firstly have to get to know you. Once they do, provided that the favour you are asking of them is quite small, involves little effort on their part, and doesn’t put them at risk of appearing foolish etc, most people will help out. Thus, someone who I have come across on one online forum, asked me yesterday if I knew any good accountants in his area. I do know a couple, and I know that they are perfectly capable of screening out time-wasters, so although I don’t know him, there’s little risk to me in giving him their names and I am happy to do so.

To get bigger and better favours, people need to actually like you. In the offline world, ‘liking’ someone happens through simple social interactions. It’s the brief chat at the coffee machine, the pint in the local, the ‘good’ conversation at a business luncheon, the round of golf that was nearly rained off. We may form an opinion of some people very quickly, whereas for others it may take a while for them to have the opportunity to ‘shine’ in our eyes. Some folks, we get to know and accept for years, before a unique event turns them into someone we really ‘like’. Some people are good at being likeable. Of course, though, there are ‘likeable rogues’ and that’s why the next step in the process is so important.

We may like someone quite a lot, but something has to happen for us to trust them. Trusting someone is an incredibly complex process. I could, and might, write another blog just about this. Some people are prepared to trust others quite easily – at one end of the spectrum they might be seen as gullible. Others will trust certain types of people more readily (such as trusting a priest) whereas others won’t. For some, the person has to be seen to be ‘open’ – if we believe some of the literature, women are better at being ‘open’ with one another so they will trust each other sooner than they will trust a man. Interestingly, women often include in this inner circle gay men, which gives a pointer to both their lack of a perceived ‘threat’ and also their ability to be more open. Some people relate the ability to empathise with trustworthiness, so psychotherapists might be trusted more by these people than by others. Looked at the other way round, there are some people, who for their own reasons, find it hard to trust others and remain deeply suspicious of others’ intentions for a long time. As I said, there’s a whole complex of issues at play here, but the key to any process of getting benefit from social networks is that we need to find ways of engendering trust with others.

As Penny implies, the next step is for us to ‘follow’ people we trust. This means a lot of different things. Of course, we can follow people we don’t even know (that’s called stalking). And we can follow people who we quite like but don’t necessarily trust (in a village that’s called ‘curtain twitching’!). Following, is not just a passive process. It’s a way of making sure that our initial judgment (of trustworthiness) is justified. It’s a way of reinforcing to ourselves that the person is indeed worthy of our support. We may even test them a little – asking little favours to see if they will be open to being asked a big one. It is a way of building up a bigger picture of them so that we know more ways in which we and they can support one another mutually.

Only then, once we have got to know, like, trust and been following for some time, are we likely to respond positively to someone who asks us for help that might involve an investment of energy by us and carries any risk (particularly to our own reputation).

From a ‘business’ perspective, what’s the most we are likely to ask of someone in these circumstances? Well, I suppose it would be to expect them to advise their family and friends to invest a significant amount of their personal capital in our business. That’s probably the biggest. I know one chap who has been doing this seriously for more than 20 years. He is highly trusted by his family and close friends. They know that, if and when, he suggests that they might like to invest a serious sum of money (typically over £10,000) that he has thoroughly checked out and developed a substantial degree of trust in the person he is recommending. They also know that he will be investing considerably more than he is recommending they invest (so he is carrying a far greater risk).

To most of us, the favour we will be asking will be far less dramatic, but nonetheless it is substantial. Let’s take the case of someone who is looking for a new position in the executive market. The chances of you finding the decision maker at your future employer’s business online are pretty slim. What you are looking for are people who might know someone who might be interested in meeting you and who might, in turn, be prepared to create a position for you. That’s the shortest chain – there are more contorted ones. So this first person is being called on to take minimal risk (unless you are an out-of-work serial killer, I suppose) but is being asked to invest a little of their time. Later, they might also be expected to invest more time, and to put you in touch with other people. Until they know you well, and have plenty of reason to trust you, they won’t be too comfortable introducing you to others. To be absolutely clear, the risk to them is that you turn out to be a disaster in the eyes of their colleague and that this throws into doubt the quality of their own judgment.

Now, there will, as I have implied above, always be some people who will see these risks as minimal and just ‘go for it’, but to many you have to use the social media platforms to get to be known, and begin to be thought of as likeable. Realistically though, to the majority of people that will be the limit. They won’t go beyond that stage without physically meeting you. They want to know what you look like in the flesh. They want to know if you stutter or stammer, if you swear in every sentence, if you snort and spit, if you are only focused on yourself and your needs, if you smell. I could go on. These are all, perfectly reasonable, reasons why they might not want to put you in touch with their mate who might just have a job for you. Of course, at the executive level we expect many of these things to be taken for granted, but let me give you a few examples of people I have met in the last month who I would have serious reservations about connecting with my network and why… prepare to be shocked by my judgmentalism…

  • A had his papers in a carrier bag.
  • B had his shirt untucked on one side of his trousers exposing a hairy bulge and tummy button.
  • C was a most attractive woman, until she opened her mouth and screeched in an uncouth and uneducated accent.
  • D came to a business meeting in shabby light green polyester trousers with a visible waist extender and a worn-out blazer.
  • E was dressed smart casual for the networking breakfast, so far so good. He obviously had a lot of experience. I know because he wouldn’t shut up.
  • F tried to sell me his services before even finding out what I do.
  • G introduced herself as an ‘executive’, then listed her various former employers. Eventually, a tad frustrated I asked what it was that she did NOW. At first, she said she was launching a new innovative service company based on the VA (virtual assistant) model but offering a far wider range of more professional services, including book-keeping, web design, and ‘other things’. Sounds great. So why was it that she presented me with a business card that said “agent for XYZ nutritional supplements”?
  • H who, at a business networking breakfast, couldn’t give me a business card because “I’ve just changed my phone number”.

    Yes, I am judgmental. So are most of the people you will encounter. Yes, if I invested more of my time I would get to know them better and understand what they have to offer, and may even why they don’t place any importance on these various qualities. But I don’t have that much time – and neither do the many other prospective people they could be engaging with. Sorry.

    So, how do you get social media to work for you? In my opinion, this is why self-employed people are different from corporate executives. It largely comes down to expectations. In the corporate world, people are generally divided into three categories – customers, suppliers, and colleagues. In the self-employed world, the predominant group is ‘prospective or actual referrers’.

    To the job hunter from the executive world, recognising that there is this enormous part of the population that they haven’t been engaging with and yet, upon whom their future is dependent, can come as a big shock.

    Unlike customers, suppliers, and colleagues, you do not expect the people you engage with on social media sites to instantly offer you a job. You do not expect them to instantly put you in touch with their friends and colleagues. You do not EVEN expect them to be prepared to meet you.

    But THAT is your objective. You are using social media to establish a network of people, to whom you can demonstrate sufficient qualities (of a completely mixed kind), and to do so consistently over time, for them to agree to meet you.

    Timing is critical. You don’t even suggest it unless you have decided that, for the two of you, sufficient commonality has been established to warrant asking them to meet for tea or coffee.

    Yes, there will be a few who, mainly because of distances, will warrant a telephone conversation (better still a Skype video call) before agreeing to meet. But ultimately, the need is for you to meet them. Then you can wow them with your impeccable dress sense, polished accent, rigourous personal hygiene, convivial attitude, and gracious social ease. Because those are the things that they are going to use to decide whether to introduce you to someone whose friendship they have invested years of effort in cultivating.

    Best wishes

Graham Wilson

PS My Business Book of the Week is “59 Seconds” by Richard Wiseman (21/08/10)