Building Circles of Trust

Partially inspired by this thread

Every time I talk about what I do, there is a greater need to specify, define, clarify. Every year more marketing budget gets heaved onto social media, and as a result, there is an ever greater number of agencies staffed by ever more intricate specialisations of social media workers. So what do I, as old social media generalist, still claim to be able to contribute? Where do I aim to add value?

When I taught people how to be on social media, back before it was all marketing, it was very much about building circles of trust. It was just like building friendships as opposed to giving fake attention, just to sell or influence. If you are anywhere with a one-track mind, the relationships are going to be shallow to non-existent, only there while the transaction lasts. You can feel the attention of the salesman drop away from you as they have disqualified you as potential buyer. If, on the other hand, people are going to care a bit more for each other, there has to be realness: personality, individuality, emotion. Humanity, empathy. Or at least basic social niceness.

We still have good online relationships now among some of our old circles, but we’ve lost sight of how important they are, so we don’t talk about them any more. Bigger, shinier things have come along. After all, this is the tech industry. Tech is supposed to solve issues, not force us to do things differently, right?

But this is about relationships. Relationships are built on human interactions, on imperfections, not PR, on care, not follow-backs.

There are of course transactional relationships – I don’t need my bank to be a person, I just need it to do good customer service. A journalist is there in their professional role and I still follow them because I am interested in getting an insight into their working life, a look behind the scenes. A comedian’s social media presence doesn’t lose any of its relevance because that comedian doesn’t respond to my tweets.

Anyone who professionally has an audience will have a ready-made audience on social media too, that requires no work at all. They can interact with that audience, but don’t have to, there are no expectations. Anything they (or their team) share is a bonus, is already more than the fan would see without social media. They also have friendships (‘mutuals’) with a few people who they talk to, usually those they socialise or work with in real life, their inner circle, which it is as hard to get into as joining the upper classes in feudal times (and sometimes with the same methods.)

Some of the individuals they don’t know personally will sometimes rant at them in ways they wouldn’t if they cared about their feelings. For most people, social niceties such as the prospect of ever being in a social situation with the other person prevent those things, but that is very unlikely to happen. (I’ve written about that emerging two-tier society elsewhere.) That’s just part of the gig when having an audience, but it’s hard to understand when you’re in the middle of it – even Stephen Fry left Twitter because of it.

My understanding of building a personal social media presence for us who don’t already have an audience, and using it well, is that we all, wherever we are, build a close circle of trust. Doing it online just allows it to grow bigger and more useful, and include people we wouldn’t meet otherwise. For these circles of trust to happen, we need to be there, and we need the other people to also be there in person – online or not. This sentence sounds like a dichotomy – usually ‘in person’ means the opposite of online. But that boundary is not so clear any more. People who talk to each other online are very often feeling closer to each other than those they are in the same room with. In person, as opposed to outsourcing your Twitter account. That sort of thing.

That doesn’t mean that online relationships should take us away from real life. Face to face interactions allow for different signals, different social scripts, different relationships. For myself I have learned to appreciate the togetherness that comes with being in the same physical space in a different way. I love the many layers that are added to relationships that happen both in physical spaces and online. A person giving you access to their thoughts in a social situation, or at an event, and then continuing to do so, provides a strong base for much longer lasting relationships. Having these kinds of conversations also allows to hear people who aren’t traditionally successful in busy social situations. You’ll have to experience it, I guess.

And THAT is what I want to share with people. This ability to be online in person is useful in many contexts. Building close, trusted relationships with distributed teams, or in larger organisations. Building relationships with industry peers. And yes, building a great Twitter presence. The platforms vary; the principles, the approach, the humanity, the confidence remain the same.

Another thing – if a boss buys a platform for their people to communicate better, and the boss leads by example, using these skills, it is far more likely for the rest of the organisation to see the advantages and follow suit. If, on the other hand, the new internal communication platform is bought from a tech company, as a solution, handed to the comms team and left to get on with, there very often will be a lot of resistance to adoption.

That’s the thing about the tech industry. A lot of it has become about people, and people need guidance, leadership. All in-built ways of encouraging collaboration won’t work if they aren’t employed by people who have the basic experience of close online relationships. Giving points, levelling up, awarding wanted behaviour still only works for those driven by competition. This is such a basic thing, but it needs saying, because it happens in almost every instance that platforms like Jive etc are deployed.

We do need to foster good habits, and this guidance needs to come from the right place, otherwise people, and the organisation, can be affected in many unforeseen ways. Once we do foster good habits which result in good relationships on all levels, we can even build our own platforms and get out of Silicon Valley tech. Wouldn’t that be nice.

What is it I don’t do (because that’s worth pointing out too)? I don’t really focus on social media marketing, other than the fact that marketing could be so much more if it was built on real relationships. I don’t do PR, I teach how to build real trust. PR was long predicted to be dead but it still claims to be able to build trust artificially, because it’s more expensive, so it has to be better, right? I want to show that being actually truthful isn’t for losers – precisely the opposite. Done with wisdom and expertise, it is the best policy in the long run.

I don’t deny there are bad things about social media, the trolls, the abuse – but starting to build distributed communities of trust means that the frustrated trolls don’t actually have much to hate. If the real humanity of people is out there, if people truly appreciate each other, see more of each other, and as a result, care more for each other’s feelings, and don’t just use new media to do old-school exploitation, it can all be so much more useful, peaceful, harmonious for all of us.

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