I've had a digital business for 15 years--a long time in online history. During that time, I've seen the Internet change our lives in so many ways, particularly how we communicate with one another. While I'm a huge proponent of virtual relationships, I believe there's a benefit in taking these relationships off-line...or as we say in Twitterese, "IRL" (in real life).
This might feel like contrary advice coming from someone who writes a lot about and participates often in social media, but it's a natural sequence of events. We cannot survive on the Internet alone. Humans, by nature, are tribal. We not only tend to band together, most of us seek out the physical presence of others. This survivalist behavior dates back to caveman days; it's in our DNA.
When it comes to conducting business, the evolution of an online to offline relationship happens through a number of stages.
The Intimidated Avoider - For those born before the Millennials, immersing oneself digitally was probably a daunting proposition at first. Old-timers might even have had other people print out and respond to their emails at first, so the notion of participating in social media was beyond daunting. The Intimidated Avoider still expects you to conduct business "the old-fashioned way," through sales appointments, lunch meetings and printed catalogs or proposals.
The Hatchling -The Hatchling, spurred on by curiosity or corporate requirements, becomes more open to online relationships. Early on, this may just take the form of email, but at some point The Hatchling decides to register her first social media account or two. This doesn't mean that she completes her social media profile or conducts any kind of activity on the social media platform.
The Lurker--The Lurker still suffers from a bit of intimidation and may have issues about doing something wrong, so instead he logs on and just watches and listens to the activity going on around him. He's trying to get his social media "sea legs."
The Joiner--Some Hatchlings leap quickly into Joiners, while other Joiners evolve from confident Lurkers. The Joiner is someone finally ready to contribute to the conversation, albeit some Joiners don't yet get that the conversation shouldn't be all about them.
The Engager--An Engager fully embraces all forms of digital communications, especially social media and its two-way conversations. An Engager might actually prefer digital over other forms of communication, but certainly an Engager takes full advantage of the online relationship-building opportunities that digital and social media channels offer.
The Connector--The Connector sees beyond the sphere of merely building her own online relationships. By getting to know nuances, attributes or needs of the people in her online network, The Connector starts to introduce members of her network to each other, bridging and building even deeper relationships.
The Graham Beller--An odd thing happens to Engagers and Connectors: They want to actually talk to each other, as in by phone, Skype or at least by one-on-one chat or text. The voice exchange is the highest form of the relationship, validating to one that the other is "real," and truly taking the notion of "real time communications" to another whole level.
The Extra Terrestrial--Talk about other-worldly: The Extra Terrestrial feels compelled to take a relationship the "extra mile" and actually meet his online friend, follower or connection "IRL."
Is it ironic that so many people--I among them--get past the Joiner stage and thrive in social media but ultimately enjoy taking their online relationships off-line? Not really. That's part of what makes social media so valuable, as a conduit to flesh-and-blood interaction. Because, as we all know, in the business world relationships matter. And they're built on things like trust, emotional instinct and common values, which manifest faster and more easily through face-to-face interaction.
While it's not possible for social media juggernauts with thousands of "friends" to personally meet all of their connections, if that face-to-face interaction happens, it tends to solidify that relationship in different, more meaningful ways. Perhaps it's because in this time constrained, fast-paced world we live in, when someone takes time out to meet in-person, they demonstrate a greater degree of interest in you and what you do. This, in turn, deserves and earns your respect, trust and likely a sense of reciprocity to act likewise. And to me, this is the highest form of a relationship, digital or otherwise.