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October 26, 2010
How I Build Online Connections Into Real-World Influence

Earlier this summer, I participated in The Influencer Project -- a conference devoted to establishing and building community and influence online. The thought I shared there and will share with you, is counterintuitive, yet simple: The most effective way to build influence online is to build it offline. Specifically, make connections with people online, and then go and meet them in person in the real world, offline.

Quite frankly, there’s nothing as powerful or effective as a personal, face-to-face connection when it comes to all the buzzwords of the day: relationship building, community building, and influence building. Whether it’s offline or online, it's the actual personal relationships that are what make the difference.

Let me give you an example. I live in Seattle, and among the many great things we have is a fabulous and famous farmers market: the Pike Place Market. Pike Place is about 10 miles from my house, and the freshest foods in the world can be found there. Last week, I chose to go to the local farmers market that’s about five blocks from our house.

I chose the local market not because I thought the foods would be better, but because I believe that genuine, real-world community is important. The only way to have a community is to have personal relationships, and the only way to have personal relationships is to make an effort to go out and connect with people.

Community is a word that is used a lot, so much that it’s losing its meaning. To me, community is the mesh of relationships that are both a catalyst and a safety net for our lives. It's a network of people who help you find your next job, bring you chicken soup when you’re sick, or pick your kids up from school when your car breaks down and you can’t get there in time. Community shows up to support you when you’re performing and contributes to the causes you support, not because they support the cause, but because they support you. Like a trampoline, community is the fabric that prevents us from going splat on the ground and also shoots us back into the air again.

While at the local market last weekend, I met the police officer who patrols my neighborhood, crossed paths with the mother of the teenager who babysits my kids, and chatted with the guy who has the booth where I’ve been buying granola. Are these my new best friends? No, but one interaction at a time, I am building real-world relationships in my local community.

The Internet remains excellent for making far-reaching connections, and social media only makes it more excellent. Now, we can reach out to almost anybody across the world and interact (to the extent that he or she will reciprocate).

Way back when radio was still a big deal, I remember making contact with the host of my favorite radio show. It was a nationally syndicated show, and the host lived far, far away. We exchanged e-mails about his show, and I thought that was fabulous. I was giddy from being able to have a direct communication with someone famous. Does that mean that Mr. Radio Show Host and I were friends? We had connection, but did we have a relationship? Was he now part of my community?

In other words, the Internet and social media are great at enabling us to create a broad array of shallow relationships. Just look at your Facebook and LinkedIn accounts. How many of your “friends” or “connections” are really, truly part of your community? How many of them act like a trampoline for you?

On the other hand, I’ve found that the most effective way to transform these shallow connections into deep relationships -- that is, to build community and influence -- is to combine the online with offline. Make an effort to meet your online connections face-to-face in the real world. It's the most powerful way to build a genuine, trustful community.

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Scott Porad is the CTO of the Cheezburger Network, the company behind the hugely popular I Can Has Cheezburger? and Failblog.org. The Cheezburger Network is a collection of websites where every day millions of people share moments of joy through the humor and wonder of LOL. Since 1995, Scott has been building industry leading websites including launching drugstore.com, working on ESPN.com at Paul Allen's Starwave Corporation, and for Seth Godin at Yoyodyne Entertainment. Scott lives online here and in real life with his family in Seattle.

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