Experts have long debated just how big your professional network should be. Should you focus more on the quantity or quality of your relationships? The easy answer, of course, is “both.” Unfortunately, though, there are only so many hours in the day. Building and maintaining relationships take time; building stronger relationships takes more time.
Given that your time is limited, the number of your relationships and the average strength of your relationships end up being inversely proportional. The more people you know, the less well you know them. If you want to build stronger relationships, you’re going to have to do so with a smaller number of people. You can spend all of your time with your close friends and family (strong ties, low number), or spread yourself thin across a wide number of people (weak ties, high number). However, maintaining both high strength and high number is physically impossible. How can you find the proper balance between strength and number?
This debate has been exacerbated by the proliferation of social networking sites that make it feasible to have a personal “network” of several thousand people. The leaders of some of the networks have taken some strong stands on the issue:
- Thomas Power of Ecademy says, “Go for volume over ‘quality,'” arguing that there’s no such thing as a quality person vs. a non-quality person. He walks the talk — he’s personally met with several thousand Ecademy members one on one.
- At the other end of the spectrum, Mike Walsh, CEO of Leverage Software, says, “Look for quality,” and encourages people to look for networking sites with features that help you evaluate whether a certain contact is worth pursuing or not.
- And Adrian Scott of Ryze, discussing some changes in Ryze’s policies and functionality, said, “We’d like to create an environment that encourages quality, rather than quantity for its own sake.”
Those absolutes are difficult to sustain in practice. For example, LinkedIn very strongly positions itself on the quality of its membership and encourages members to focus on people you’ve worked with before in some capacity. Their tips on who to invite say:
- Only invite those you know well
- Only invite those you trust
- Only invite those you want to forward things to you
But at the same time, the design of the site encourages people to maximize their number of connections. The more people you’re directly connected to, the fewer number of degrees away you are from people, on average. With more direct connections, you can see more people, more people can see you, and you’re more likely to come up at the top of searches, which by default order the results by “degrees away from you.” The FAQ may encourage quality over quantity, but in practice, quantity is also rewarded. This is a fundamental tension in LinkedIn’s design. What allows LinkedIn to still be a valuable application is that quantity also carries a cost: more link requests which you are likely to reject. Some of the most-connected people on LinkedIn have complained about the number of irrelevant requests they’re getting. That’s exactly the way the system should work; those people are paying the price for linking indiscriminately.
Another interesting example of the value that people place on quality relationships is the new Ecademy BlackStar program: a lifetime membership, plus some exclusive coaching, introductions, and other services, all for a $4,500 one-time fee. While that might seem prohibitively expensive, apparently many see the value — over 2,000 of Ecademy’s 47,000 members have already applied. The fact that people will pay that much money is proof that people value online network systems such as Ecademy. Membership is limited to 25 new members per month, “because Thomas Power and Roger Hamilton have limited time available to serve BlackStar Life Members and wish to provide exceptional service and intimacy levels,” and “to ensure quality levels, service levels, and qualification levels.” While Thomas may practice the volume approach for himself, he recognizes that it’s not necessarily the approach everyone wants or needs, and that building stronger relationships requires doing so with a smaller number of people.
So, back to the original question: How do you find the right balance of strong ties with highly relevant people vs. maximizing the number of people in your network?
The answer is that each person’s needs are different, and the way to optimize the value of your network is to determine the necessary level of strength required to accomplish your goals, and then maximize the number of people at that level.
For example, if you are selling investment banking or strategic consulting services, you need a high strength level for someone to buy your services. These are big-ticket items which require a high level of trust in their provider. Ideally, you have a small number of close relationships with senior executives who are in a position to buy these services. You may be tempted to try to meet everyone in your golf club, but that is both unrealistic and unproductive. Instead, develop a substantial relationship with the top thirty most relevant to you.
However, if you are a celebrity trying to sell movie tickets, your relationships can be much weaker but your number has to be much higher. Movie stars mainly make money by selling people the chance to watch a movie for $5-$10 per view. They try to have ties with as many fans as possible.
There is no one right solution overall; your needs will likely be different from one context to another. For example, the movie star will want to develop strong ties with producers and directors.
Because time is the constraining factor, seek out strategies that allow you to build stronger relationships or reach more people with the same amount of effort. The effective use of technology offers several such strategies:
Take private conversations public.
Rather than carrying on an email conversation with just one person about a topic of mutual interest, move it to a discussion forum or mailing list, where more people can participate and offer their input, as well as benefit from your knowledge and ideas. Or cc: a few other carefully selected people to include in the conversation.
Start a newsletter or blog, and make it personal.
Make it possible for hundreds, or even thousands, to keep up with what’s going on in your life and business. Rather than making it an impersonal article or collection of articles, make it about your personal experience, even when talking about your business. This approach is what helped Chris Pirillo grow Lockergnome to nearly a million highly loyal readers.
Write more effective emails.
Once you learn how, it doesn’t take much longer to write a good email than a bad one.
Master mail merge.
As we discussed last month, the effective use of mail merge, even in small quantities, can dramatically increase your ability to keep “high touch” with a large number of people.
Focus on quality venues.
For example, having an article published in a major periodical is going to serve you better than being in “Joe’s E-zine.” It may take a bit more time to pitch it, but no longer to write it.
Say less in more places.
If you have time to make, say, 10 good contributions a week to discussion forums, it’s probably preferable to post one message each in 10 different networks than 10 in a single group. You’re helping more people, instead of becoming a boor in one location.
Above all, respect that there is no one right approach, and that what works for you may not work well for someone else. Seek out venues where you will meet the kind of people who can support you — and who you can support — in achieving your professional goals, determine the strength of relationships you want with them, and gradually grow the number of people in your network at a pace that allows you to maintain the relationships you’ve already created.