Friendship-Focused Marketing, Take 1

I had a pretty good time at SXSW Interactive this year, largely free of the self-consciousness and second-guessing I had put myself through the first two times around. I don’t know about you, but when I’m around thousands of talented, motivated, and smart people, I wonder just how I stack up. I’m old, maybe washed up, but I still have The Dream. Some tiny part in the back of my mind whispers that it is too late for me to have such dreams; I should settle down and find a good, steady career with great health benefits. Fortunately for me, that part of my brain is speaking Chinese, which I don’t understand very well, so it’s relatively easy to ignore as I blithely continue down my path toward wherever it’s going. SXSW has become my yearly pilgrimmage to stock-up on inspiration and find new stars to guide me.

This year’s SXSW was also different because I’ve had to introduce myself to more strangers. The previous two years, I hung out with groups of people who already knew me from online groups. This year, I hung out with mostly new acquaintances and got to know them the old fashioned way: by talking to them in person. I met a lot of new people just by sitting in the hall flashing my OLPC XO, through the core conversations, and through acquaintances I’ve only talked to at previous SXSWs. The impromptu situations that arise through the sharing a power outlet lead to the exchanging of cards. As I handed out my cards, I silently kicked myself because I knew my website was a mess. It doesn’t really convey who I am succinctly or rapidly. Because my categories are all broken, it’s whatever happens to be on the home page that will feed that first impression.

I found it notable that I was so concerned about how my website reflected on me, so I gave the matter more thought. Conveying who I am has always been really important to me, I knew, and it has colored the way I’ve presented myself to prospective clients. In fact, I started the blog as a deliberate attempt to avoid putting up a regular design portfolio / services website, having developed a severe allergy to crap marketing writing; I wanted to speak my thoughts plainly, not hide behind empty superlatives and ambiguous references to excellence. I told myself that maybe I would lose out on clients seeking “professional” designers, but at that time in my life reclaiming my sense of identity was much more important.

But why?

Make Money or Make Friends

My sense of identity, I realized, was important because I doubted myself in some fundamental way. The self-consciousness of the first SXSW was really about whether I was “good enough” in some way to even rub shoulders with people who were, in my estimation, building a future I wanted to be a part of. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it then, but I had found my tribe. It’s taken 3 visits to finally feel confident that I’m not going to get kicked out. There is plenty of room. At the same time, being in a tribe doesn’t automatically pay the bills. Because this feeling of belonging and communion feels almost spiritual to me, I have trouble thinking of it as a source of revenue. This is my hangup, I know. I have the same problem here on Better Living through New Media, unwilling to push hard on advertising because it dillutes the feeling that I am doing this for a reason more “pure”. I’m really writing for my friends. If you are reading this blog because you feel that I’m writing about topics that are important to you, then you’re my friend too. And friends don’t guilt their friends for money or favors…not true friends, anyway. I can say that without doubt or lack of conviction.

And there it was: if there’s anything I believe in, it’s friendship. My entire life has been blessed by it, and I can see now that my struggle to reconcile marketing and branding practices with my own self-promotion has been assuming that friendship and professionalism are separate when maybe they don’t have to be.

Modeling Friendship

There are many tiers of friendship, ranging from the casual acquaintance to inseparable buddies. Everyone finds their own level eventually, though getting there requires give and take on both sides. Starting a friendship is relatively easy when you’ve got one of the following working in your favor:

  • Shared Interest — You both have the same interest in a subject, and are happy to find someone to talk to about it.
  • Shared Mission — You have a common goal to achieve, and your shared objective creates the scenario in which you get to learn more about each other.
  • Shared Values — You have similar standards for judging the world, and your shared belief reinforces each other in a positive way.
  • Shared Context — You see each other often but don’t know each other. After a while, you determine that the other isn’t dangerous, you start to get to know each other through small talk.
  • Shared Activity — You are both doing something active, and doing it together creates an opportunity for further discourse.
  • Curiosity — One of you notices the other doing or saying something that so intrigues you that you have to find out who that person is. Just keep your eyes open, ask about it, and see what happens.

Deeper friendships are build on trust, of course. I think it’s built bit-by-bit through the demonstration of several positive personal qualities that reinforce each other. I’ll list the ones that come to mind here, in no particular order:

  • Reliable: Your friends don’t let you down, at least most of the time. Just say no to constant excuses.
  • Empathetic: Your friends “get” you in a way that strangers don’t. They are happy for you when you are happy, sad with you when you are sad.
  • Non-judgemental: Even when your friends can’t figure you out, they just accept it’s “the way you are”. It doesn’t affect the friendship. You can be different and still be friends. “If you’re not with me, you’re against me” never applies to a true friendship, though sometimes it helps to make that clear.
  • Generous: Your friend makes time for you and shares his/her resources for your benefit. In return, you offer the same.
  • Gracious: Neither of you take advantage of the other “because you are friends”.
  • Honest: You tell your friend how it is even when it might be hurtful. Having the empathy and non-judgmental attitude here helps.
  • Non-destructive: Your friend will never demand you to put yourself at risk for their behalf. And they won’t hate you if you don’t offer. This is a real test of friendship.
  • Helpful: Good friends give good advice that helps you get on with your life and your dreams.
  • Amazing: Every great friend has some quality that blows you away in some manner, inspiring you in some way or proving incredibly useful in certain circumstances. And that great friends sees you the same way.
  • Interested: Your friends tell you what they’re thinking, and they’re interested in what you’re thinking too. Just because you matter to each other.
  • Consistency: Your best friends don’t surprise you in weird and unpleasant ways, act differently when you are in a group, or put conditions on the friendship.
  • Authenticity: Your friends are real with you all the time. They may choose to present different aspects of their personality toward you, but it’s always genuine.
  • Transparency: Your friends will never apologize for being your friend. Nor should you give them a reason to do so. It will still happen from time to time, but your ability to communicate makes it possible to relay issues without it sounding like an attack.
  • Positive: Your friends believe in you and want you to be happy.

I’m sure there’s more, but these are the ones that come to mind when I think of the common qualities of all my truest and bestest friends. I am quite blessed.

Turning Friendship into Business

I’m not really suggesting using Friendship as a prospecting strategy, but there are some similarities between the way I prefer to present myself and how I’d like to attract the right kind of business.

  • First of all, I am interested in working with people who have similar values coupled with curiosity. I’m not so much interested in attracting business based on the other friendship entry points; “Shared Interest” corresponds roughly to “services” like graphic design, “Shared Mission” is like partnering, and “Shared Context” is like attacking a vertical market.

  • I need to really ensure that my website helps people realize that values and curiosity are at the heart of my focus. In addition to just saying what those values are, the challenge is also a content presentation strategy; providing lists of recent articles by category, for example, with more descriptive or intriguing post titles.

If I’m successful at conveying these two points, then the right subset of site visitors will understand why we could be friends. The next challenge is building that trust through the reciprocal demonstration of the positive personal qualities listed above.

  • The first stage is establishing the tone of the relationship: Empathy, Generosity, Graciousness, Honesty, Helpfulness, Amazingness, and Being Interested are all qualities that can be demonstrated right away.

  • The second stage, long-term trust, comes from continuing to demonstrate those positive qualities over time. Also, the personal qualities of Reliability, Non-Judgmental Attitude, Non-Destructiveness, Consistency, Authenticity, Positivity and Transparency come into play as challenges to the friendship when self-interest is a factor. When there is a conflict of interest, that is when friendships are really tested.

It’s pretty easy to accomplish the tone of the relationship on this blog: I’m already doing it by giving away form designs, striking up conversations, and trying to write what I believe in. However, establishing the second stage of long-term trust only happens once I make the one-on-one connection. To some extent, trust is established through other credibility markers such as number of subscribers and testimonials made on other websites, but when it comes right down to it what matters is the one-on-one relation I have with YOU, as a friend or as a business relationship. And the only way you can build trust is if you actually do something together that requires trust. In this context, trust just means “you did something that reinforces my positive impression of you in relationship to me.” In the physical world, we build friendships by actually making an effort to get together. You can’t really become friends without making time for each other and liking it. Same goes for establishing trust here on the website: I have to build some kind of reciprical “getting to know you” activities where we can all participate. This could be a group project, a forum, or even ecommerce of some kind.

Website Redesign Strategy

So that’s what I’m thinking right now. When I hand out a business card, I am handing out an invitation to friendship. My website needs to speak to those qualities right away, and provide the mechanisms by which friendship can be nourished. Secondarily, I want my website to make it easier for my friends to introduce me to their friends. “Oh, you’ve got to meet my friend Dave! Here’s his websites, check it out and I think you’ll see why we should all hang out.” And maybe, just maybe, we’ll build something awesome together. There is one bit of common wisdom, don’t do business with friends, that is worth examining.
  • I think that can be rephrased as follows: Don’t do business with selfish assholes.

  • Taking yet another pass at this, I’d even amend the statement to You should do business with true friends; just remember your business values may be different than your personal values.

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p>This is a complex topic, so maybe we’ll discuss this in the future. Comments welcome!