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Of Hammers, Wrenches and Screwdrivers

We are often asked, and frequently see the question come up in various discussion groups, Which is the best tool for closing more sales and connecting with the right people online? Is it blogging, interacting with millions of bloggers sharing their business knowledge, industry commentary, and occasional pictures of their cat? Or one of the many business networks, such as openBC or Ecademy, which offer group interaction and private messaging as well as searchable profiles? Or LinkedIn, the trusted referral system that has attracted some five million professionals?

We are often asked, and frequently see the question come up in various discussion groups, Which is the best tool for closing more sales and connecting with the right people online? Is it blogging, interacting with millions of bloggers sharing their business knowledge, industry commentary, and occasional pictures of their cat? Or one of the many business networks, such as openBC or Ecademy, which offer group interaction and private messaging as well as searchable profiles? Or LinkedIn, the trusted referral system that has attracted some five million professionals?

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Asking which of these is “better” is like asking which is better: a hammer, a wrench, or a screwdriver? They are all tools, and best suited to particular tasks. A wrench can be used as a hammer in a pinch, and a hammer can force a screw into a two-by-four, but it’s a lot harder and riskier. A master craftsman has a full toolbox, and unless your job is to drive nails all day, you’ll be far more effective if you know the right tool to use for the task at hand.

Blogging is a way of building visibility, demonstrating your expertise, and engaging with people interested in the same topics as you. One of its greatest advantages is that it is completely open — no membership required! Anyone on the Web can potentially find you in a search engine or a link from another blog, learn more about you, and contact you if you share some common interests or they want to learn more about your products or services. On the downside, while blogs are searchable by topic, it’s very difficult to search for people in a structured way, e.g., former co-workers at a particular company, people in a certain industry in a certain city, or even people with a particular skill set.

Online communities offer a group interaction space (or multiple spaces) in conjunction with searchable, customizable personal profiles. They represent a convergence of identity (think personal Web pages), community (membership in self-organizing groups), and communication (discussion forums and private messaging). They offering varying degrees of open interaction, depending on the site and the preferences of the user, but only minimal interaction with non-members. The ability to easily learn more about a person and connect with them individually to follow up on the group interaction is compelling. One of the downsides is that they can be a little too enjoyable, and many people find themselves spending too much time in these sites when they should be focused on other aspects of their business. We are firm believers in closing more deals, not just in chatting with more people.

LinkedIn was primarily designed as a tool to help you leverage your existing network to meet specific people for a specific purpose. People are using it for more general-purpose networking, but communicating with specific people is the task for which it is optimized. There is no group interaction per se. LinkedIn also offers minimal ability to communicate within the platform, and the system encourages people to connect for a specific purpose, not just randomly or out of curiosity. These are major reasons why the site has created an attractive platform for senior executives, hiring managers, entrepreneurs, and other extremely busy people. They can leverage and be of service to their existing contacts with a minimal time investment and not a lot of unfocused interaction.

In our book, The Virtual Handshake, we introduce the Seven Keys to a Powerful Network, a framework for assessing your personal network and aligning your activities with your objectives. Comparing these tools in terms of the Seven Keys shows how each can serve your relationship-building activities in its own way:

Key Blogging LinkedIn Online Networks
Character Demonstrated over time through how you speak of others, what you write about ethical issues, etc. Demonstrated by some endorsements. Demonstrated strongly by your public interaction with others, your willingness to be of service, etc.
Competence Demonstrated through in-depth writing about your topics of expertise. Demonstrated minimally by endorsements, though multiple endorsements add up. Demonstrated through writing about your topics of expertise, often in response to specific questions.
Relevance Attract and connect with people interested in the same topics as you. Ability to focus tightly on meeting people for specific purposes, and hopefully attract like-minded people. Ability to focus on meeting people for specific purposes and to connect with like-minded individuals in a group setting.
Strength Strengthen relationships through sustained dialog with readers and other bloggers on your topic. Strengthen relationships by being of service, making referrals and endorsements. Strengthen relationships through sustained public and private dialog with other members.
Information Great source of information about someone’s expertise and interest. Minimal information about relationships, contact info, etc. Great source of information about your immediate contacts. Unique source of information about the relationships in your second and third degree. Great source of information about your immediate contacts, though profiles are often fairly static compared to blogs. Information about relationships varies greatly by site and personal practices.
Number Tremendous tool for building the number of people you know – probably the best (short of major media coverage). Can be used to build large networks, but not optimized for it, as each connection requires manual intervention, and there is no way to engage people within the system. Group interacting supports connecting with a large number of people, though the potential pool is limited to members of the site.
Diversity Not really a tool for building diversity, except that you will often attract readers who have the opposite view on your topic as you, e.g., conservative and liberal political bloggers read each others’ blogs and comment on them. Excellent tool for purposefully finding diverse contacts, e.g., experts in a field you’re considering moving into, a country you’re planning to visit, etc. Build diversity through group interaction. For example, a group focused on a particular business interest will likely include people of different political and religious affiliations.

So it’s impossible to say that one or the other is best overall, and difficult to say that any one is best even for one person. Really, each is best suited for certain tasks. Because most people’s business needs are many and diverse, and we’re never certain what those needs may be in the future, the master salesperson, like the master carpenter, keeps a full toolbox and knows both which tool to use for the job and how to use it most effectively.

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