Once upon a time, there were “Strong Ties” and “Weak Ties” in business.
Strong Ties existed between you and your best customers. You interacted frequently and knew each other well. The bulk of your business was from and through these Strong Ties. It took some work. Maintaining them required a big investment of time and effort, but the benefits of business, the sharing of high-quality information, and the transfer of complex or “hidden” industry knowledge was well worth the effort.
Weak Ties were…well…weak. However, over time there was a declining ROI of time and effort in a network based on mostly Strong Ties. Weak Ties exposed you (and the Ties) to a broader span of knowledge, expertise and opportunity. Exposure to more diverse information and resources has been shown to drive higher rates of radical innovation, and be especially useful when you have a tough problem to crack.
How things stand today?
First, there are roughly 2 billion social media users in the world.
Billion…..with a B.
Second, according to McKinsey Global Institute, at least 70% of companies are using some form of social media. Online search and social media sites have increasingly become the primary, if not sole, source of information for individuals and businesses alike. These have largely displaced traditional sources such as printed company literature, the Yellow Pages and business directories. Organizations no longer have control over what is disseminated about them. As one publication states, “most of what is said about the company will not be said by the company” (AT&T, 2011). In a recent global consumer survey by BrightLocal, 88% of respondents said that they place greater trust in other people’s online recommendations for products and services than in other sources. The significance of this is reflected in the growing popularity of consumer websites based almost entirely on personal reviews, such as TripAdvisor and Yelp, and the dominant role of consumer reviews on leading e-commerce sites such as Amazon, eBay, and Facebook Business pages.
OK, so Weak Ties are becoming more important, Strong Ties are evolving, and you have a business to run. What does this mean that you do?
- You need to develop new relationship-based associations with your customers and other social media participants (All Ties…), especially to build and maintain brand loyalty and to manage or at least influence what is being said about you online. Instead of just disseminating information about the organization and its products, you need to actively participate in the discussions on social media sites and develop other methods to engage Internet users. Most people deal with information overload when surfing the Web or visiting social media sites, so you need to design and implement content and initiatives that are interesting, entertaining or thought-provoking, to capture and hold their attention.
- You will also be judged by the way in which you respond to online customer feedback, especially negative comments or complaints. Your reputation is on the line here, since everyone on the Internet can observe the interaction and judge accordingly. You need to develop and maintain not just a brand but an online personality which is likeable and well-respected and with which individuals can develop a real sense of familiarity and emotional connection. It is now often argued that ROI on marketing should now be measured not in traditional sales terms, but in terms of “return on engagement”. What is important is a measurement of engagement or emotional investment in the brand, such as active participation on the company website or favorable references to it in blog posts. These not only translate into longer-term individual loyalty but also help to attract additional followers who may become fans and customers.
- Key in both the B2B and the B2C social media contexts is the ability to identify and build relationships with “key influencers” in the business network or target market. Jay Baer writes about this topic regularly with keen insight. This observation returns us neatly to the concept of social networks and the concept of weak and strong ties. In order to achieve the desired business objectives, there is a need to plumb the mass of online users and identify those likely to have the greatest impact. Within social networks, for example, there are usually key individuals or “trusted experts” who have established a strong reputation in their field. You need to make positive connections with a few key influencers who will transmit positive information about you. This is likely to be much more effective a strategy, and much less resource-intensive, than direct relationship-building with large numbers of people in the target market. Similarly, when a business partner or expert is needed, it can be invaluable to locate and build a relationship first with a “critical enabler” or “trusted advisor” who can offer not only detailed knowledge of the relevant industry niche and its participants, but who also knows the key decision makers personally and can help arrange an introduction or advise on the best approach to them. The old saying, “It’s not what you know but who you know” applies.
- Curtis & Lewis (2010) argue that in order to develop effective relationships with key enablers or other stakeholders, the principle of progressive reciprocity should be followed, in which something of value is offered to the other party at the outset, not just after an offer of help is secured. You might benefit from developing and maintaining strong ties with key influencers or critical enablers who are likely to provide ongoing value and benefits in return. At the same time, you should maintain a wider network of weak ties with other stakeholders who hold relevant knowledge, expertise or market influence. One strategy that is likely to be effective across the board is to establish the your company itself, or individuals within it, as trusted experts in a particular subject area, for example by publishing well-researched, informative articles or blog posts on relevant topics.
Business relationships in the early 21st century have become much less binary and much more fuzzy. Your opportunity here is to establish a bit of order out of the seeming chaos online, think differently about relationship-building and your VACC (Visitors/Audience/Customers/Community), and realize the untapped potential for explosive business growth this presents to you.
Go on……we’re waiting to hear from you!