Friday, July 24, 2009

Best friends who have never met?

Do you think it's possible for people who have never met to become best friends? I do. Recently, I analyzed over 16,000 web entries for an online contest, which asked respondents to define what constitutes a real friendship. The analysis was qualitative, but I used an extended model of friendship known among psychologists as the Adams-Blieszner typology. For those of you who are interested in what constitutes an authentic relationship or friendship, I've written a quick overview of the model at the end of the post.

One of the fascinating findings from this project was the group of respondents who wrote entries about a best friend they had never met. I think this is particularly interesting since we live in a world where social media has become the talk of the town and marketers are using the term "web 2.0" in a myriad of ways. The key learning for me was that the relationships created between people who had never met in person - think chats, cancer support groups, responding to ads on Craig's list, social networking sites, or working at the same company and communicating only via the intranet - were almost identical in terms of their most important characteristics when compared with "in person" relationships. People who met online (but never in person) still formed deep personal relationships with others. Like offline friends, a frequently mentioned characteristic was Homogeneity (or Sameness - see below for more explanation), which facilitated a natural connection due to shared experience in life. Other online friends talked about receiving Assistance from a friend, although it might have been in the form of Emotional instead of Physical support (for instance taking the kids off one's hands for a weekend.) Frequency of contact (i.e. we talk every day) often had a positive correlation with online relationships as well, since communication through technology was deemed easy, which may have enabled a higher frequency of contact between friends.

So what does all this mean? I would hypothesize the following: While there are most certainly new rules that apply in the domain of online communications, existing psychological models still lie at the foundation. After all, the internet was created by humans. In fact, understanding the psychosocial significance of our behaviors still lies at the core of who we are, whether we are online or not. Anonymity can skew this, but only in some cases. Most of the time, we are a fairly open book when functioning in the online space, and therefore, we seek authenticity in the relationships we form online. Even if our "online identity" is being positioned one way or another (i.e. "life coach," "citizen journalist," "student," or "social media expert"), our behavior (online or offline) still relies upon an understanding of the manner in which people behave while among others (although individuals, small groups, and larger collectives have different dynamics).

A key takeaway for people working in marketing and business is to consider using these types of behavioral models to glean as much information as possible about the user, even when working within social media or online communications, so as not to reinvent the wheel. Which principles of human behavior and relationships do you think hold true in the online and social media arenas? Which do not?


There are 5 overarching categories used in this model to define the "characteristics" of friendship, and underneath those lie subcategories.

CATEGORY 1: The first overarching category is termed "Behavioral Aspects" of friendship, and it includes four subcategories: Self Disclosure (i.e. we can talk about anything), Sociability (the fun factor, as in, "I really like this person"), Assistance (which can take the form of either a physical, emotional or spiritual help), and Shared Activities (i.e. we're gym buddies, we like to go shopping together).

CATEGORY 2: The second is termed "Cognitive Processes" and this includes: Loyalty/committment (which can come in many forms), Trust, Shared Interests and Values (i.e. we both believe in the same God), Acceptance (lack of judgment even when a friend is making choices you don't agree with), Empathy (i.e. when she is sad, I feel it too), and Appreciation/Respect (which can include admiration and respected traits).

CATEGORY 3: Termed "Affective" aspects, there are two subcategories: Compatibility and Care (where care if often shown by using the word "love" when describing the friend).

CATEGORY 4: The second to last category is termed "Structural" characteristics. This includes two interesting categories, especially for marketers: Solidarity (or closeness) and Homogeneity (or sameness, as in we both are widows, we both have kids at the same school, we both have a 4 year old, a teenager, we were both moving to the same city, etc.)

CATEGORY 5: The final category (Proxy Measures) deals mostly with Frequency of contact (we call each other every day), length of acquaintance (greatly influenced by age and experience of the person responding) and duration of contacts (or quality time spent).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I don't speak Italian

For this post, I've decided to post a real story about how social media can create relationships.

It all starts with an article I contributed to for an Italian cycling magazine (see above). Here's the catch: I don't speak Italian! But then how, you might ask, did I publish an article in an Italian magazine? The answer lies in an authentic story about social media and how it can create interesting relationships, as it did in the experience I describe below.

I joined Twitter late in 2008, so I was a bit late to be considered a real early adopter, yet I was still considered ahead of "the mainstream." I tried to understand the best and worst ways to use this tool as fast as possible in order to get up to speed with the actual early adopters. After reading many blogs and opinions on the matter, I decided to use Twitter initially to find information about topics I personally found interesting. One day in particular, while searching for sports journalists, I came across an reporter from Italy named Enzo.

I clicked the "follow" button in order to begin following Enzo's tweets. He then direct messaged me to ask how I found him, since he had a relatively small number of followers. I told him about using the search engine feature, and in a sense, acted as an mentor and advocate for Twitter and its functionality all at the same time. He inquired about the picture I had featured in my background picture on Twitter, which was a picture of a beautiful lookout called Le Belvedere on the French Polynesian island of Moorea. As our conversation via direct messages progressed, I learned that he was soon to write a series of articles for a magazine about Tahitian tourism and cycling.

What happened next is the amazing part. The human part of social media. By no means was I a professional cyclist, however I disclosed to Enzo that my fiancée and I had chosen the bicycle as our primary means of transportation, since renting a car cost upwards of $100 per day. We would be traveling for five weeks in total, so renting a car wasn't really an option.

Enzo asked if I'd be willing to write about my experience so he could include it in one of his articles featuring the testimonial of a real live tourist. I had been feeling exceptionally adventurous one day, and we had decided to bike 60km around the entire island. The trip proved itself to be among some of the most memorable experiences of our entire stay, and I was delighted to write about it.

The image I've posted here on my blog is the article Enzo wrote; the product of our collaborative effort resulting from the connection we formed via Twitter. Presently, I'm living in Central America, and Enzo in Italy. It is social media that brought us together. I now have a new friend in Italy and something unique for my scrapbook of photos!

In the end, we don't always need a social media expert to find ways to connect. Sometimes the connection is much simpler than we realize, and the dividends are far greater than we could anticipate. In this instance, I spent an entire day writing and editing and uploading pictures for this article, all free of charge for a stranger. So, in my opinion, there are some critical questions we as marketers should ask ourselves:

How do connections form using these new vehicles? We have studied and understood the nature of these conversations and relationships for years. But the ability to receive information so quickly, coupled with our need for instant gratification has changed the dynamic a bit. In what ways has it changed the depth of the conversation, if at all? And if it has, what details can we now afford to leave out (or not)?

Another important question is in what way can people achieve an authentic connection in social media environments? Does there have to be reciprocation? Yes. But, how do we define reciprocal acts when it comes to a relationship founded upon a social media platform? Some might say I got the short end of the stick (with my new friend who published the article getting the long one). However, I'd disagree as they would fail to understand that as a user, I received gratification from "mentoring" my new friend about the search engine feature on Twitter. And then of course there was the terrific addition to my scrapbook. Understanding exactly what is being reciprocated and why it matters is key.

There are undoubtedly many more questions to ask. What do you think?

The author thanks her new Twitter friend Enzo Vicennati for providing her with the opportunity to contribute to the magazine article. You can follow Enzo on Twitter @enzovicennati. Follow me, @reneecassard, here on Twitter.

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