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Social Selling, Bar Hopping, And Relationship Commoditization

by David Brock on February 24th, 2020

Listen to the proponents of “Social Selling,” and it is the future of selling. It is the way for us to “develop relationships,” extend our reach, capture new prospects and customers.

The Social Selling experts talk about extending the size of your networks, many talking about how many 100’s or 1000’s of connections their methods can help you achieve in weeks.

The platforms, themselves, are structured to facilitate making thousands of connections. I remember the early days of LinkedIn, where with each connection, they warned you to only connect with people you know well. In many cases it was very difficult to actually send a connection request. We were required to provide the right email address.

Today, Linkedin provides daily recommendations of hundreds of people I can connect with. They went to the same universities, maybe worked for the same company, maybe live in the same area, maybe have the same titles, maybe have similar interests. And all we have to do is click on the recommendation to send a connection request.

And once we have those connections, the tools enable us to mass email and prospect at scale. Every day we get dozens of automated messages from people who are interested in “collaborating,” “partnering,” “learning more.” Yet they have never taken the step to developing a “relationship” by looking at my profile and learning a little more about me or what I care about—or the person they are “connecting” with and what they care about.

Or the LinkedIn discussions, all of which follow the same format: Provide a provocative statement, take a position, show your vulnerability, declaring your “authenticity” by asking for feedback. Then they measure the reads, likes, comments. Inevitably, they are less interested in discussion or learning, but more interested in agreement and likes. But they are more interested in leveraging these discussions as megaphones to expand their presence, not something to learn.

I fall victim to these, I think the person is genuine and wants to learn. I often respond in the comment stream, or reach out through InMail to offer observations and insight. But I’ve learned, these people aren’t really interested in learning, they are the new generation or broadcasters, seeking only to build the size of their audience. And they may use that audience to advertise their services, getting people they don’t know or care to know to sign up, pay their money, and not hear much different.

As I reflect on Social Selling and the commoditization of relationships, it took me back to my bar hopping days of college and early work life. I remember our “gangs” would travel bar to bar, event to event, often having contests of how many people could we meet, how we could have fun for a few minutes, and, possibly, get laid.

We weren’t looking to establish “relationships,” with each person acknowledging the shallowness of the process. But we were just out to meet people, have fun, maybe dance, then move on. We weren’t really interested in deep conversations and learning, sometimes prompting a buddy with some sort of “rescue me” signal so we could get out of conversations we were trapped in or the few people that wanted to establish relationships.

We collected names and phone numbers, so we could expand our partying network, learning where we might go on the following weekend. We created “sophisticated” mechanisms for getting the word out, with certain people serving as “network nodes” (that’s my nerdy description), getting the word out to their networks, ultimately meeting at a bar, restaurant, party, party, or concert–then moving on to the next one.

For it’s purpose, at a point in time, bar hopping and partying served its purpose. We had fun, we got one night stands.

Over time, those “relationships” became very unsatisfying. We learned we wanted more depth, more meaning, more longevity. And we learned to get more of those things, we had have less of a lot of the other things–mainly the number and shallowness of the barhopping relationships.

There’s a lot of science that supports this empirical observation. There’s the concept around “Dunbar’s Number” which posits we can only have somewhere around 150 meaningful relationships.

We see customers increasingly dissatisfied with “one night stands.” They are looking for more meaning, they are looking for more depth. They struggle with complexity, overload, overwhelm, uncertainty, change, meaning. They are looking for sensemaking, they are looking for decision confidence.

While they may not be looking for “deep, meaningful” relationships, those they experience, now, leave them dissatisfied. We see this, visibly, by the increasing difficulty of connecting and engaging them.

As with major cultural, individual, business, and societal “transformations,” the initial steps are fraught with misstep and failure, often taking years/decades until we figure things out and they become a part of who we are as people and societies.

Clearly, Social Selling, is one of those nascent efforts. We are seeing how unsatisfying it is, and will be looking for the next new thing–probably going through iterations and refinements over the next 10 plus years.

We have to be careful not to confuse our current efforts with Social Selling, with Digital Transformation. What much of the early research is showing is that Digital Transformation is intensely human and personal. And we are still a long way from understanding what that means.

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One Comment
  1. Here is Dunbar on the 150 limit:

    “We find an upper limit on group size because this is the limit of the number of relationships that an animal can maintain at this level of complexity.

    It’s not just a matter of remembering who is who, or how x relates to y and both relate to me, but rather how I can use my knowledge of the individuals involved to manage those relationships when I need to call on them.

    Dunbar, Robin. How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks (p. 31). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition.

    So the question is: do any of the social platforms allow us to manage the knowledge we have of individuals so that we may call on more than just those we have a face to face relationship with?

    The answer appears to be, provisionally, “yes”. We are going to have manage business relationships with people we will hardly ever see.

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