I Am Not a Number!

Have you received one of these lately?

Dear FirstName:

I have been using YetAnotherSocialNetworkingService to keep track of my professional contacts. Since you and I know each other so well, we should connect and share each other's networks.

or

FirstName:

I'm updating my address book. Please take a moment to update your latest contact information. Your information is stored in my personal address book and will not be shared with anyone else. SuperMegaHackableDirectoryService is free, private and secure if you'd like to give it a try.

Did you immediately accept? Or did you let it languish in your in box for awhile before deciding to either delete it or do something about it? If you're typical, then the first two or three of these you received were intriguing and you signed right up, but by the time you receive 10, 20, 50 nearly identical messages, you start to get jaded, and the canned messages simply don't have the same impact.

Similarly, have you ever had the experience of getting into someone's sequential autoresponder — a program that sends a series of predetermined emails, usually either daily or weekly? Have you started to get seemingly personalized messages, but when you try to get through to them in person, you can't?

How did that make you feel? And would you ever wish that on someone else?

According to Robin Dunbar's research, as popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Duncan Watts' Six Degrees, the human brain is only capable of handling about 150 close social relationships. That's approximately the number of people for whom we can remember their name, their face, where we met them, our last conversation with them, and other details. As Dunbar put it, "It's the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar." For most professionals, a network of a mere 150 direct contacts, including friends and family, would be woefully insufficient to support you in achieving your business goals. But our brains simply can't handle more than that.

And so we turn to technology — distributed cognition. We use our computers to expand our processing power and storage capacity. Unfortunately, in so doing, many people lose track of the human element. They forget that the technology is meant to assist us in dealing with larger numbers of relationships, not to replace interpersonal interaction. Designers of social networking tools failed to understand this early in the design process. As a result, there is now some backlash against many of these tools and, to some extent, the people who continue to use them in this manner.

Fortunately, most of the social networking companies have now figured this out and are shifting away from the canned messages. LinkedIn and ZeroDegrees have both added half a dozen or so different templates from which you can choose. Of course, one of them is still the default, and most people will simply accept the default without changing it. That's a big mistake if you want your invitations to not only be accepted, but to actually help build the relationship.

The first thing you have to do is get the right frame of mind about why you're using technology to help you manage your relationships. It is not so you can pretend to a larger number of people that you care about them when you really don't. It's so you can treat more people who you really do care about as you would like to treat them, if only your brain were capable.

This is not supposed to be a tool for mass marketing; it's simply a way of sustaining a lot more relationships with a little less effort.

Here are some of the practical ways to apply this:

Master email merge.
Many people do not realize that this is a built-in function in Microsoft Word, most other word processors, and many email programs. For people who you truly have an established relationship with, mastering mail merge can be a huge time-saver. Besides the obvious things like basic contact information, store data about your contacts that allows you to really personalize your messages, such as a phrase that complete the sentence, "As you may recall, we met … ." For example, we suggest sending out a holiday greeting like,

Dear...,

Happy New Year to you and Carlos! How is the baby?

I have attached below a brief summary (admittedly canned) of the latest news in our life, along with our new home phone number at the end. If any of your contact details have changed, please mail me. In fact, we'd love to hear from you regardless, just to catch up!"

Segment your database.

Store information that will allow you to easily send messages to small groups of people:

  • All the people in a city you are going to visit ("Hi, I'm going to be in NYC next week and would love to see you if you have some time free.")
  • Everyone who shares a particular personal interest of yours ("I saw this article in Fast Company. I thought you might be interested in.")
  • People of a particular political, religious, or ethnic affiliation ("Happy St. Patrick's Day!")

Customize your social networking invitations.
Even with the new choices, tweak the default text to make it personal. Even better, segment your invitations. For example, send one invitation to people in your executive club saying, "I know we have the directory for connecting with each other, but by joining this site, we can help each other even better by leveraging our extended relationships."

Write every group message as if you were writing it to just one person.
This is a great lesson from the Internet marketing gurus. An email from Mark Joyner will have you convinced that he really is personally expecting to see you at the next big Internet marketing convention. Think of one person in the group you're writing to, and write the email as if it were just to them.

Review everything by hand before it goes out.
Automated data will do wacky (and often embarrassing) things. Scott recently received a contact update request from a close friend that showed his name as "Scott Guide", because Scott's About.com email account has his name listed as "Scott Allen, About.com Entrepreneurs Guide". Or you may accidentally send a message that says "I haven't seen you in a while" to someone you just saw yesterday. If you set your mail merge to not automatically send, you can go through and tweak individual messages to fit the particular situation.

Don't send automated contact update requests.
Instead, send a personal update message with a contact update request incidental to it. Consider the possibilities:

  • The contact info you have is correct, in which case it's a pointless nuisance to ask them for an update.
  • Their email is inaccurate, in which case you're not reaching them anyway.
  • Their email is accurate, but the other info you have isn't. In this case, you can reach them via email, and if you need their phone number, you can probably track it down.

A better approach is just to send out a personal update once or twice a year — what's going on in your personal life, maybe a business highlight or two, and ask them to send you their updated info in reply.

You'll notice that this approach requires you to get a fair amount of information about the people in your network, as well as some time to manage it effectively. If you're trying to create an anonymous mailing list, there are ways to do that, but that's not how you build strong one-on-one relationships. If you want more than 150 strong relationships, you have to make sure you don't make them feel like a number.


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