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The Commoditization Of Relationships

by David Brock on January 7th, 2010

The other day, I was having breakfast with a great friend, one of the most talented marketing executives I have encountered.  Unwittingly, we had the same thought on our minds, ending up talking through breakfast—unfortunately, with no good ideas on dealing with it.  Thought I would share it here, getting your views about the issue.

Both of us are very active, both individually and with our respective companies in leveraging social media/networking tools, many of the marketing automation, Sales/Web 2.0 tools, and other tools.  We each are also on the receiving end of seemingly endless communications, through email, the various network updates, Twitter, and the list goes on.

Maybe our concern was heightened by the high number of personalized “Dear Occupant” holiday cards we had gotten, but each of us commented on the accelerating trend of commoditizing relationships.  Relationships are critical to each of us and our organizations.  We can’t accomplish anything without close and deep relationships with other people, whether they be colleagues at work, suppliers, customers, or just friends.  All of us have a variety of relationships–some very close, with frequent personal contact, others with varying degrees of contact, and others that are more distant.  The closeness and distance of relationships vary over time and circumstance.  All of that is natural, but there are other trends we each described that were causing us concern about the commoditization of relationships.

Many of the tools, under the guise of improving efficiency of developing relationships, have become nothing but “brokerages” of names and email addresses—we will give you a contact, if you give us a contact.  One I find particularly offensive is one that collects cards at business shows then lets you buy them.  Their pitch is, “don’t worry about attending the business show yourself, we’ll attend for you, then you can contact them, saying you met at CES  (I’m in the airport waiting to go there right now).  Their belief on relationships is not only do they broker the contact information they collect, but they also supply you the “lie” about how you “met.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was approached by a company with a new “referral tool.”  They wanted my endorsement.  Basically the tool enabled you to put in a contact’s name, business and home addresses, they would give you a list of all their neighbors, work colleagues and other links they found, along with a “form letter” asking your contact to forward a pre-written reference to the names on the list.  The only thing missing in the pre-written letter, was “forward this to 10 other people, do not break the chain!”  Their tool was one of the more offensive and blatant in brokering relationships I had seen.  For those of you that see it, please make sure you never use it in asking me for referrals.  You will not get the reaction you expect!

There are a number of powerful and good networking tools that individuals misuse.  Every week, I get requests from people, I very distant contact with for a “LinkedIn endorsement.”  It seems because we are linked, they feel they have the right to ask me for an endorsement.  I see companies and individuals using other powerful tools, focused on giving greater insight into a company and even key people, as just ways of getting contact names and email addresses.  What ever happened to opt-in?  One company, actually provides derived email addresses.  You know how it works, they get one email address for a company, then apply the same method to all other individuals in the company–whether they have provided an email address or not.

So part of the problem is we have tools that blatantly commoditize relationshsips by brokering information.  Another part is that we have tools that have great potential for giving us insight, but are misused by too many people, just looking for contacts—not interested in developing relationships.

Finally, the most significant challenge is the tendency each of us has to default to “low touch” relationships—putting great distance in relationships that should be closer.  We use all kinds of excuses not to pick up the phone and talk, or not to get together for a meeting, a lunch or dinner.  We are busy, but is that an excuse.  It’s as easy to dial a number and talk to someone as it is to tweet them—yes the asynchronous nature of many of these tools enables us to connect, but using twitter, texting, email for an interactive discussion rather than picking up the phone  (Full disclosure, I have fallen victim to this myself).  Teenagers today are, perhaps the most extreme example–preferring to text or use something like Facebook, to picking up the phone and talking.

Technology is wonderful.  It provides a potential to improve both our efficiency and effectiveness.  We have to keep thos in balance—relationships are not about efficiency.  Technology is wonderful, it enables us to quickly extend and build networks of relationships, but it’s a double edged sword, it is so easy to misuse the tools and cross that delicate line from providing insightful communications to intruding and spamming.  Technology and the new tools are wonderful in providing more alternatives to reach out and touch someone—but sometimes it’s better to actually reach out and really touch someone.

Am I off base, or does it seem that we are rushing headlong down a path of commoditizing relationships?

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  1. Steve Bent permalink


    I can see this path you have predicted – and it’s a little scary!

    We’re not as “advanced” with this stuff in the UK I feel, and I would hope that the prediction is a little apocalyptic!

    The key thing is the difference between a name in a database and a real connection. As, and I think you’d agree, we know the connection is the only real thing that works! So I would hope that this – which will transfer to cold hard cash for the end user (or lack of it!) will provide the reality check to keep these scams to a minimum rather than running amok…

    …or maybe they will work in the end and we’re all doomed!

    Thought provoking!

    • Steve, thanks for the reply. Don’t get me wrong, we all have names in our marketing data bases, that we develop and nurture over time — and hopefully with their permission. The things I find particularly objectionable are the tools and individuals that treat close relationships cavalierly or in an exploitative manner. Unfortunately, I am seeing too many of those, and the frequency dramatically increasing.

  2. Dave

    Your spot on in the recognition of this trend toward the wholesale cheapening of business relationships. It’s more than a little disturbing how our information is bought and sold in America and the assumptions people make without considering appropriateness of their contact or even the content of their messages to us. I predict that we’ll see somewhat of a collapse within the next five years that will result in a new paradigm on this front, but even if I’m wrong, there will most certainly always be tangible rewards for those who take the time to understand each other; building strong partnerships that create accountability and provide substantial mutual benefits for the long haul.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts,

    Don F Perkins

    • Don, thanks for the thoughtful comments. One of the problems with the “cheapening” of these relationships is that it just raises the noise level, reducing the value of all these great vehicles. Rather than establishing conversations in social media, the noise level will escalate those to shouting. Rather than establishing communities, we will have meaningless mobs. You are right, this will cause new paradigms–probably going through similar cycles—-seems like we’ve been here before.

  3. Great post Dave. Yes, it seems we are heading in that direction, and I don’t like it. However, technology allowed for the development of niche markets – it will also enable for a niche collection of users to be intentional about how they’ll do business and who they’ll do it with in spite of the momentum.

  4. I, too, have been bothered by similar trends. The most egregious example of these kinds of tools I’ve encountered is an automated “reciprocal following service”, in which a Twitter user who signs up is immediately followed by everyone else who has signed up, and (of course), immediately follows those same users. I recently wrote about this, and other practices, in a blog post on the commoditization of Twitter followers.

    Your emphasis on expending the effort required for establishing or maintaining quality connections reminds me of an interesting post that danah boyd wrote 2 years ago about valuing inefficiencies and unreliability, in which she lamented the ease with which social networking service users could reach out to their entire networks … and the devaluation that resulted from the lack of friction.

    Finally, a quote I recently encountered on @KathySierra’s Twitter stream (retweeted from @workforfood) seems relevant here: “If it is important enough to you, you will find a way. If it is not, you will find an excuse.” Perhaps the corollary here is “If it is important enough to you, you will call. If it is not, you’ll use {LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | other SNS}”

    • Joe, thanks for your great comments! I really enjoyed both your and Danah’s articles. Thanks for taking the time to contribute!

  5. Dave great post, it has been one of my concerns as well, the Social Network can add greatly to relationships and keeping in touch with people. Yet, I do wonder if anyone actually talks to someone anymore. Even executives and sales people are continually texting during meetings and about every place else.

    I had a bad experience when attempting to automate twitter/facebook/linkedin/plaxo etc. Linking them all up and auto re-posting to save time. End results, facebook got hit with 30-50 tweets an hour, all duplicates and filled the page. Lots of de-friending and blocking went on before it was caught and stopped.

    Point being, the temptation to fully automate relationships will generally backfire on you. Better to actually connect with a few than the masses.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • I think we’ve all had similar backfires in our attempts to automate relationships and expand our social presence. Hopefully we can laugh a little about it. Thanks for the comment Harlan!

  6. Hi Dave,

    Couldn’t agree with you more. After seven great startups, the one thing I see as common amongst them all is the strength of the relationships both outside to the market and internally amongst my teams. There just is no substitute… We build a web tool to help here that really works but it is just a tool… the user’s “mindset”.is where the magic has to happen. Thanks Dave!


    • Tom, thanks for the great conversation. Too often, we mistakenly think technology can displace the need for “old school” stuff. It is a complement to all these fundamentals! I really appreciate your observations.

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