In decades past, only super-connectors could claim to have 500 professional acquaintances. Now, the "500+" number is ubiquitous on LinkedIn—but chances are you wouldn’t recognize many of these people on the street.
The vast majority of people "believe they are more connected today, but they are less relational," says Keith Ferrazzi, author of the 2005 bestseller, Never Eat Alone, which was re-released with new material for the digital age. "All of our success in life is contingent on the relationships we have," he says.
Fortunately, it’s possible to turn online connections into real-life ones. The problem is that most of us are taking the wrong approach to these relationships, says Ferrazzi, who is also CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a research and consulting firm. We rely on serendipity to make things happen. Sometimes that works, but often it doesn’t.
Instead, look at your offline existence. Ask yourself what you’d like to do in life. What job would you like to find? What would you like to learn? Who would you like to marry? "'Who are the people I need to know in order to achieve that?’" says Ferrazzi.
Once you’ve figured out those questions, you can celebrate the wonder that is the Internet. "Never before did you have access to building the front end of your relationship pipeline like you do today," says Ferrazzi. You can figure out who are the experts in a field, who runs interesting companies you’d like to do business with, and who supports the same charities you do. You can connect with these people in low-key ways: following them on Twitter, and leaving comments on their blogs.
Then, recognize that "nobody has time for you, and the rules online are no different from the rules offline," says Ferrazzi. So the only way to build a relationship with someone is to "serve them." What do they care about? Retweet them. Send them links to articles you know they’ll appreciate. If something they’ve written has influenced you, then send a note saying that.
Look for chances to move the relationship into real life. Big events are low risk, so if you’ll both be at a conference, ensure that you’ll connect while you’re there.
But you can also arrange occasions. If the person is in Boston, and you’ll be there on business, ask if you can take him out for coffee. He might say he’s busy, but whether he is or not, making this leap from online to real life is big. But "the more you persevere, while at the same time continuing to be generous, the more likely he is to acquiesce and show up in person," Ferrazzi says.
Of course, not all online relationships need to become real ones. Social media allows you to hang on to contacts that in decades past you would have let slip. "There’s only so much time in the world," Ferrazzi says. But if you do want to have richer relationships, social media can be a tool to help you execute on the "people plan" for anything you want in life.