Establishing a strong Social Media Profile necessarily means establishing networks of (professional) friends/relationships online (aka online professional relationships … OPR) that can be called upon to help you when needed. In some cases, your goal will be to befriend individuals that are influencers in a given sphere; when needed you can count upon them to use their powerful sites and networks to drive traffic and/or business to your site. In yet other cases, your goal maybe to enlist your network to stumble or digg particlar articles. Your effectiveness at each of these efforts is a function of the strength of your OPRs … since many require different levels of trust given the potential risk to the OPR. And yes, risks do exist! Accordingly, the remainder of this post will discuss our SEP interpretation of the stages of online professional relationships, and what OPR efforts can be expected at different stages.

Now, I'm a firm believer that almost anything can be accomplished with a very strong social media profile. However, accomplishing many goals involves a more complex understanding of the nature of online relationships. Think about it. How often have you heard "its not what you know but who you know". Accordingly, below follows an assessment of the stages of OPRs, because its not just about the number of online acquaintances you have, but rather the quality of the relationships you have forged (where have I heard that before … Google and links maybe???). This of course means attempting to define the various stages of OPRs, and then defining strategies to migrate relationships to subsequent levels to support increasingly complex goals.

As a disclaimer, I've looked extensively online, and failed to find much at all that talks about online professional relationships. There's a great deal of information about non-professional relationships, phases of marriage, and even how I chose friends when I was in kindergarten, but very very little about online professional relationships. Consequently, we at SEP have taken the task to hand and have identified the following stages of OPRs, which correspond to different levels of risk and/or respect:

    a) Acquaintance Stage (Risk based)
    b) Tentative Stage (Risk based)
    c) Qualification Stage (Risk based)
    d) Respect Stage (Risk and Respect based)

Stages of Online Professional Relationships

We at SEP view these phases in a similar fashion to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in that most often, each stage will need to be satisfied before proceeding to the next. That is not true in all cases though, since some people seem to jump right to the Qualification Stage. At the more superficial OPR levels, the number of OPRs are greater. The more advanced the level, the fewer the OPRs, and of course few make it to the Respect Stage as is indicated in the above chart. Here is a more detailed description of each stage:

1) Acquaintance Stage:
In many ways, online relationships are much the same as their offline counterparts. Initially upon meeting someone new for the first time, you both proceed very cautiously and disclose very little personal information, or engage in anything that exposes you to unforseen risk. This is consistent with the Acquaintance Stage of Levinger's Relationship Stage Theory. OPRs differ somewhat however in that often there is little or no real contact, but rather a mutual acknowledgement that the other person exists (unspoken understanding that if you link to my stuff, I'll link to yours). While you're in this Acquaintance Stage you both engage in low risk activities. The only risk to you is that the other party will not reciprocate when you make the first move … which we'll call "Ego Risk". Examples of Acquaintance Stage behaviours include:

    a) friending someone on MyBlogLog hoping they'll reciprocate
    b) stalking someone on Sphinn hoping they'll reciprocate
    To reach this Stage, the other party has to acknowledge your existence by "friending you" or exchanging positive emails ("Stop Spamming Me" correspondance does not count!). To proceed to progressive stages of OPRs necessarily involves a leap of faith by one of the parties, since there are increased levels of risk at each level.

2) Tentative Stage:
The Tentative Stage introduces the possibility of a concept we'll call "Negative Risk", meaning that there may be negative impact on you or your business by being associated with the OPR in question. Obviously, there are different types and levels of Negative Risk, and as such there are different plateaus of corresponding OPRs. In the Tentative Stage, the Negative Risk is minimal, and mainly that you could be associated with a less than ideal friend. In this phase you're looking for some sign, any sign, to either trust or distrust the other party. You can't see their facial expressions for the most part, so your other senses become hyper sensitive. This is where we depart from Levinger's Relationship Stage Theory and find more in common with Social Penetration Theory, though not a great deal. We do start to reveal more about ourselves and our business objectives, but given this is business we keep most personal issues to ourselves for the most part. This period may last for days with some people, or it may last for years with others. The duration of this Tentative Stage is a function of many things, but primarily:

    a) does your reputation proceed you? How much prior trust have you established online either via your postings or mutual friends?
    b) have you been burned in the past?
    c) how soon does the other person begin showing signs of the clues you're looking for?
    d) does the other person somehow remind you of someone else, in either a good or bad way?
    e) what is your aversion to risk?
    f) amongst many many other factors (see "Factors that Increase Friendship again on ChangingMinds.org since there is so little out there).

In the Tentative Stage, you'll begin to support the Networks of others, Stumbling and Digging randomly when asked. You still question the OPR's intentions (wisely) and are not sure the OPR knows precisely what she's doing, so you limit the risk by only Digging, Stumbling, or Sphinning some of what you're asked to. You in turn start to call upon the OPR more frequently, and start to quantify their engagement to further solidify trust. In this phase, you'll start to call on the new OPR for Diggs, Stumbles, Sphinns, Reddit Votes, Delicious Saves, etc.

Once you or your new OPR (depending on pressures, aversion to risk, etc.) start to see a symbiotic relationship blossom (if either of you do), you'll attempt to move to the Qualification Stage.

* Please Note … some people seem to skip this step entirely, and move to the Qualification Stage immediately.

3) Qualification Stage:
The Qualification Stage is the phase where you let a NEW friend have some liberties … essentially you give them enough rope to hang themselves, and they do the same to you. You're still trying to assess their knowledge, abilities, and commitment. Ultimately, you (and they) should want to know if you should respect the other person and/or their abilities. Are they an undiscovered diamond in the rough? Are they as good as their reputation would have you believe? Do they have an alterior motive? Most relationships will not get to this point … most people either don't get a good feel for the OPR, feel they don't have the time to maintain/develop the relationship, or just aren't really social creatures. This is the stage where you begin to monitor their blog or check our their site in more depth. Qualificiation Stage behaviours include:

    a) monitoring their blog regularly
    b) subscribing to their RSS feed
    c) researching the OPR online
    d) friending someone on Facebook
    e) friending someone on LinkedIn
    f) mutual blog rolling

4) Respect Stage:
The Respect Stage involves significant risk to the friend. Essentially, this stage requires 2 elements; (1) they have gained trust in you as an individual that you will do what you say with the utmost in professionalism, and (2) they respect your abilities and knowledge, and the manner in which you present this information. Once you have satisfied both of these criteria, your OPR will vouch for you when talking to their piers. This is the holy grail as someone who wants to promote him/herself. If you can get a number of the top influencers in your space to this level, you've hit the jackpot. It is an opportunity for you to make a very large number of powerful allies very quickly. It also means that your friend may lose the trust and respect of his/her friends if you disappoint or violate their trust. Friends at this level are often willing to post mentions of you at their sites, get you speaking engagements, or even let you guest post without prior approval. Again … this is the holy grail of online relationships so long as the relationship is established with the proper OPRs. Do not disappoint … this is the opportunity you've been waiting for! OPRs in this phase can expect:

    a) unsolicited mentions from the OPR's blog/site
    b) inclusion in the OPR's professional networks
    c) opportunities to speak within the OPR's network engagements
    d) opportunities to 'guest blog' for related OPR sites
    e) the sharing of inside or proprietary information

Conclusion:
Given the various stages identified above, the ideal would be to have all friends achieve the Respect Stage. Having 500 OPRs reach the Respect stage however may prove too time consuming for most as it would require commitment and significant ongoing effort. The key of course is in understanding precisely what your strategy is, which I defined in my previous posting Setting Goals for Social Media Profile Development . If based on this assessment, you need a constant flow of low level OPRs (ie. for Diggs and Stumbles) but no high level OPRs, then its a completely different strategy and approach than those looking for a limited number of high level OPRs.

For now however, think about what phase the majority of your online community is at, or perhaps where key specific individuals are. I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts and strategies for migrating these people from each phase to the next, and particularly from the Qualification Stage to the Respect Stage … so do leave your ideas and comments!

Next week's blog posting will look at some strategies to keep the OPR funnel full at the Acquaintance Stage, meaning how to attract and keep a large number of OPRs to the beginning Stage of the process. The more people you have at the Acquaintance stage, the more possibilities to migrate to progressively higher levels!

Happy profile building!

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3 Responses to “Theory of Types and Stages of Online Professional Relationships”

  1. [...] try to pack far too much into individual blog posts (case in point … my 1772 word posting on The Types and Stages of Online Relationships). Personally, I think the reasoning is sound, and it is ground breaking, but blog readers are [...]

  2. Hey Jeff,

    I finally got around to reading your second social media post, and was once again floored by your insight, and methodological breakdown. Thanks for a great post. (Posted to onlywire)

  3. [...] come from? Can I really have a relationship with so many? And what sort of a one? I came across a post from 2007 that puts some theory onto this.   The team at Search Engine People argue that, much as with the [...]