“I wish the presentation covered how to be successful in meeting people online and meeting them in person safely in more detail. Many people are afraid to meet people online because it is ‘dangerous.'”
An audience member that attended one of my workshops left that as part of their feedback and I’m glad they did. This is important and not something I covered because it could easily be an entire workshop by itself. So how do you go from meeting people with whom you have interacted with online to meeting them in “real life”? I’m going to address this from the professional connection point of view (networking) and not a personal point of view (dating).
Meeting People Online
What do you want to engage and meet people online? That’s the first question you need to ask yourself. The connected world is a buffet of people and ideas and if you don’t know what you want you may end up, like I do, with a heaping plate of…stuff. Cookies dangling into marinara sauce. (Ew!) Coleslaw oozing into apple cobbler. (Oh, gross.) Vanilla ice cream slowly taking over your french fries. (Hey, that’s actually delicious!)
The goal here, whether you are starting out or just having the epiphany now of “I should make a plan!”, is to make sure you know what you are expecting to get out of your online presence so you know where to look. No one goes walking into a Hallmark store looking to buy Oreo cookies.
I have three easy steps to help you with this; find your tribe, listen, and share.
Find your Tribe
I love the concept of tribes. Small, or large, groups of individuals rallying around an idea, topic, brand, movement. Harley-Davidson owners are a tribe. Cross-Fitters are a tribe. Jeep owners are a tribe. Runners are a tribe. I like to think of tribes as people who are sharing in a deep interest, respect, and pride for a product, place, idea, or movement. Ever been at an athletic event where your team is the visitor? Everyone else is wearing the other team’s colors but not you, you rocked your team. What happens next? You immediately seek out other people who are in that tribe. “Ah, I’m not the only Sox fan in this section. Phew.” Maybe nothing is said between the two of you more than some eye contact and a head nod but that doesn’t matter, another tribe member is there and you are at ease. You are no longer alone. This happens with runners all the time, “I don’t know you but you are running, just like me, here is your friendly head nod/wave.”
Finding your tribe online without knowing what tribe you are looking for can be like walking into a Costco and just wandering the aisles with no rhyme or reason. You must have an idea of what you want to get and where to get it. Search for who the contributors are in the tribe you want to join. Are they on Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, YouTube? Find them, follow them, and listen.
Don’t jump in with both feet. Don’t even dip your toes in. Just watch and listen. Watch how the tribe interacts. How often they share, what they share, how the conversations get started and what keeps them going. We don’t do this enough. People are sometimes surprised to hear that with #SAchat, I watched and lurked to get a sense of what was going on for a few weeks (shoot it may have been more than a month). I suspect many, many, many people do this. It is a great way to learn. There is no need to participate in every chat by tweeting. You can participate by lurking and learning. Whether it is Twitter, a Facebook group, or a Linkedin group – join and then sit back and see how things work.
Now that you’ve seen how the tribe is functioning you can jump in and start sharing. Don’t do this all at once. You can start out by commenting on what other people are doing. Offering encouragement and support where appropriate. Ask questions. Engage, frequently. Connections grow through regularly occurring interactions and contact. The more they see your name, the more you will come to their mind when it comes to a certain topic or area. You don’t have proclaim yourself as a resource, other people will put you on that pedestal. In the meantime, you should just be doing what you do whether that means sharing insight, opinions, articles, or provocative questions. Do what you do, let the tribe determine how (and if) you are useful.
“Meeting” People Online
If you have joined a tribe, listened for a while, and have started sharing you can start “meeting” people. This takes some time. You don’t plant a garden one day and expect fresh ripe tomatoes the next. It could be a week, it could be a month, it could be a few months. Put the effort in and then make the move. It could be as simple as this:
“Hey Jane, I wanted to reach out and let you know that your blog post the other day really hit home for me. It was exactly what I needed and I just wanted to let you know. Thanks for writing it and keep on writing!”
“Hi Mark, Thanks for all the articles you’ve been sharing recently. It seems like we have a few perspectives in common when it comes to vanilla ice cream and french fries. I’d love to pick your brain about this more. If you are interest and available, would you have some time to chat either on the phone or via Google Hangout? Cheers, J”
Just be aware, someone may connect with you that you may not immediately see “value” in. Connections online are not always mutual. I connect with people online who I know will teach me and push me. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will want to follow back. What I value in them, they may not value in me. This is okay. As much as I would like to say that networking is a game based in mutuality, it is often not.
From Online to IRL
Yes, the news likes to make it seem that meeting people from online is this big scary thing. Yes, there are horror stories of Craiglist murderers, kidnappings, and worse things I care not to mention. However, I have had nothing but good luck with the people and relationships I have built online transferring over into the face-t0-face world. Now, I didn’t follow someone and say, “Hey, let’s meet in person!” No. That takes months, sometimes years! If you are having fun conversations and intellectual sparring matches on Twitter, take it to e-mail. If e-mail is going really well and the conversation is flowing on and off, take it to Facebook. Once you both feel like you have a good idea of who the person really is, set up a few Google Hangouts or phone calls. Then, after all that, meet in a public area (just to be safe). “Hey, let’s meet at the park at 11 p.m. by the shadowy gate with no lights!” Should be a red flag. Meet for coffee in the afternoon at a popular place with lots of people to make sure everything and everyone is comfortable. Do this a few times, heck, do it as many times as you need to. No one is saying this person has to come to your home!
The point is, take it slow. Get to know the person and find out who they really are. This again, takes effort but it is worth it. I speak with a great sense of biased because I’ve been very good (or extremely lucky) at picking great people to take from just connections to friendships. My favorite proof to show off (oh yea, I’m showing off) is the two photos below from our wedding. The best is hearing this interaction, “Oh, so who is that person over there? Where did you meet them, at school or something? From where? Twit what? From Twitter?!” I’ll let the captions and smiles speak for themselves.
What I’m saying is, you wouldn’t invite someone you met at a coffee shop into your home after knowing them for fifteen minutes, would you? The same goes for taking online interactions and turning them into in real life interactions. Take your time. Figure out what you want and where to find it. Once you’ve done those two things then it is up to you to listen, share, and engage. Good luck!