Maintaining real relationships online and off: a guide to presence

May 5, 2008 by Jared Goralnick

Two people drinking coffee Keeping in touch isn’t good enough.  Social media improves the quantity of connections but not necessarily the quality of relationships.  So how do you build a real friendship with people you don’t see regularly?

You create presence.  This concept has long helped me in romantic relationships but it’s equally relevant with friends and colleagues.  I want to address this for three reasons:

  1. I see people using social media as a replacement for other forms of relationship building.  It is a vehicle for keeping in touch, not a destination
  2. Keeping in touch is different than presence–both easier and more difficult
  3. I’ve just returned from the School of Blogging Conference and I want to hold onto some of those folks (#sobcon08)

So, What is Presence?

I think of presence as making others feel that you’re part of their life.  It’s not about you, but your weight to them.  The easiest way to understand it is in contrast to keeping in touch.

Keeping in Touch Presence
A reminder that you exist A role in someone’s life
Can be mechanical (birthday wishes, etc.) Personal (about the person, not just the event)
Based on quantity & frequency Based on quality & Impact

These definitions may be my own, but they illustrate a serious difference in the way people maintain relationships.  Keeping in touch alone does not make you a part of someone’s life, but with a similar amount of effort at creating presence you can make an impact and feel more involved.

The Presence Scale: From Distant to Present

Trite IM conversation Have you ever randomly run into a local friend when you were traveling?  Have you gotten a card from a friend for no real reason?  The less expected a point of contact, the more memorable.  In the case of the  card, it also involved going above and beyond what’s normally expected–and that stuff has an impact.

You can create a similar impact by using more personal means of communication.  The following is a bunch of ways to reach out, and how they generally affect the recipient–from the least impacting to the most.  The first three listed here are somewhat interesting, but then you can just skim the headlines and cut to the next sections where I talk about the frequency of correspondence and its content–since that’s what makes all the difference.

  1. Passive social networking.  Staying informed and letting others know of your happenings online is often one-way and ephemeral.  It’s practical but not personal
  2. Responsive social networking.  Participating with brief conversations like a comment on a Facebook wall or a quick answer over Twitter identifies your involvement and interest.  It’s a step in the right direction but is usually a closed loop–i.e., it’s ending the conversation not continuing it
  3. Conversational social networking.  Starting a conversation is inviting and makes the recipient more involved.  While most social networks aren’t the ideal place for dialogue, a little back and forth goes a long way
  4. Email and direct messages*.   The content  (not the length!) will determine whether it’s powerful or viewed as mere rote
  5. Instant messaging*.  As the first of the real-time communications listed, it’s slightly more conspicuous than email.  There are more context cues when conversation is real time, so it will be more human…but again, it’s all about the content
  6. Phone / Skype*. This is the first real-time activity that demands more if not all of both parties’ attention.  You can be on the same page with the other person here
  7. Video Phone / Skype.*  This takes phone to the next level–providing even more context
  8. Postal Mail*.  The inconvenience and rarity of postal mail makes them a treat for the recipient, and their time-delayed nature often leads the sender to write something more substantial.  When executed well, this can be powerful
  9. Group Setting*.  I’d say nothing beats in-person conversations, but that’s simply not true.  Still, each physical touchpoint does go a long way toward cementing relationships
  10. One-on-one*.  The end-all be-all.  Need I say more?

* All of these are context specific.  Real-time communication generally creates more presence in someone’s life, but the content factors in heavily.  Sometimes more meaningful conversation take place over email than the phone, for instance.  Similarly, seeing someone in a group will often make us feel closer to someone than having chatted on the phone…but how one is treated carries a lot of weight.

Which Method of Communication do you Choose?

If you want someone to feel that you’re a part of their life, you should spend some time toward the higher numbers of the list.  We’re in a world where the norm for email tends to be fairly short, so a phone call will really help.  However, when possible, getting a cup of coffee goes a long way.  I recognize that this isn’t brain surgery here but the lesson is that you should probably be putting in more phone and in-person time–electronic text just isn’t the same.  People will be more receptive to time together than you think.

The Content

I suggested a topic idea for a blogger the other day, and we exchanged a few quick emails that have led me to become a fan.  Rather than the typical us and them mentality that many people unconsciously promote, he came across as an interested equal.  All he did was open up the dialogue and ask questions.  His first two emails were very short, but they ended with:

1st email: "Have YOU blogged about them yet?"

2nd email: "And as for you, who will your big audience be in a year?"

Productivity dictates that we close loops as quickly as possible.  But if the purpose is to build a relationship, real questions (not "how are you?") are where it’s at.

Here are some tips for content when building presence:

  1. Ask questions.  On the phone, ask a bunch (if there’s time).  In an email, try to keep it to a few (since it takes a long time to answer questions via text and more questions will often delay or kill the correspondence)
  2. Make the questions real whenever possible.  Do you know what that person is passionate about?  Ask about that in whatever way your can.  Also, try things that have nothing to do with your relationship but just offer genuine caring–like how their family is
  3. Remember.  Nothing stands out more than a good memory to show that you care.  Fortunately with many people, you can look up what’s going on via sites like Facebook or Twitter–to nudge your memory a little
  4. Be thinking of them.  Bring up something that related to a conversation you’ve had.  Sense a pattern yet?  It’s all about that they’re on your mind.  That they’re present in your life.  Not only is it flattering, it leads to reciprocation
  5. Be helpful.  Send a link from time to time, and put a personal sentence together above it.  That 30 seconds you take to personalize something helpful will further demonstrate that you’re thinking about them

I could go on, but you get the point–don’t just talk about what you did that day.  Show that you’re interested in their passions and person.  Be on the same page and you’ll feel much more a part of their life.  They’ll feel your presence.

Frequency of Contact

It’s not just the frequency of interaction that strengthens the relationship–it’s the investment of time over the long haul.  In other words, an email exchange every week for 2 months will mean less than an exchange every month for 8 months.  This is because maintaining relationships over time takes effort and is, well, fairly uncommon.

So what’s the minimum?  A thoughtful exchange (phone call or email) every few months will maintain a relationship (and do a better job than just the usual social media mentions).  The role you’re looking to play in their life will define the frequency.

Traveling to Visit People

Nothing can do more for relationships than visiting from afar.  While not every relationship merits a trip out just to see each other, more people would probably be open to the idea than you think.  At the very least, when you’re planning a trip for work or pleasure, consider if any friends are in the area–don’t miss the opportunity to strengthen the bond.

As an example, I flew up to visit an Icelandic friend (who I had only collaborated with online) when he was in Boston and am now working on a trip to Iceland.  When you really gel with people, there’s no reason not to offer to visit or invite them to stay with you.

"Do I really want to put in all this effort?"

In building a distinction between presence and keeping in touch, I’m really just trying to improve the quality of relationships we get out of our communication.  It’s not that you need to put in more time, it’s that a different form of outreach might bring you closer to people.

"Ok, but what’s in it for me?"

Happiness is not about how many people you have in your life, but the relationship you have with them (there are countless studies that support this).  Having strong relationships with a few people will really affect you.  This point may be obvious, but what’s not so obvious is why so many of us spend so much time building up a network of very loose connections when a few stronger ones will make all the difference?

So go on and create presence in the lives of those you care about…or develop a deeper bond with those you’re now just keeping in touch with.  Any other tips to share?  Is it not worth the time?

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13 Responses to “Maintaining real relationships online and off: a guide to presence”

4 Trackbacks

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  1. thaitexan (annie belle)

    I have been struggling with this, and now a great piece on maintaining relationships w/ppl we don’t see regularly


  1. Elizabeth

    Jared, I really appreciate the contact rankings and the break down of meaningful content. I disagree, however, that 2 months of emailing once a week creates less presence than 8 months of emailing once a month. All else being equal, I would feel closer to a person after 2 months of emailing weekly. Now, if we’re talking a year later, in retrospect I might feel like the 8 month contact had more presence, but the idea for me is that the relationship that is built up from frequent contact over 2 months creates a base for all future contact. You establish a certain level of intimacy that can then continue.

  2. Jared Goralnick

    Very good point, Elizabeth. A lot of upfront time getting to know someone is powerful… and, of course, if the 8 months played out with correspondence each week in that timeframe there would clearly be more presence.

    My point is that the effect that time itself has on relationships is often overlooked. I would rather someone contact me fairly regularly (I mean, assuming it was a good friendship), but I think that someone who can reach out monthly is a rarity and that it would mean a lot. Most relationships slow to a halt rather than continue at a relatively slow pace–but I think people’s energy would be better aimed at the slow and steady than the quick and short-lived.

  3. @Stephen | Productivity in Context

    Hey Jared, I am glad that we got to meet at SOBCon. I am working on entering my cards into HighriseHQ and it’s your turn. Saw this: “Productivity dictates that we close loops as quickly as possible. But if the purpose is to build a relationship, real questions (not “how are you?”) are where it’s at.”

    I would submit that while Productivity practices do require the closing of open loops, you are being a little too fine-grained. “+E-mailed Jared” may be a closed loop, but in a larger context you have Twitter and perhaps a standing Tickler-file entry to call and renew/brainstorm/etc. to keep the relationship open and growing.

    I will definitely be keeping an eye on this as I develop my own meta-community.

  4. Jared Goralnick

    Stephen, it was great meeting you, too. And I really enjoy your disciplined perspective on productivity.

    I feel there’s a difference between a tickler file reminder and open back-and-forth. Tickler files are for planning ahead, open-ended questions are for exploring now. I agree that the tickler SHOULD be used with all sorts of relationships to keep things alive (more thoughts on that with you in private perhaps, even an idea for an application), but I think aiming to keep a conversation running is a helpful step.

    Thanks for checking in, and looking forward to all the upcoming changes on YOUR blog. Cheers.

  5. Avani

    Jared, this is a great point that you have raised. What has worked for me is to actually have a good conversation no matter what the medium is. Be it email, chat, phone call … each deserves attention and should make one feel as if we talked in person later on.

  6. Jared Goralnick

    You’ve nailed it, Avani! Thank you : )

  7. dcpatton

    Jared. Great Post. I agree with almost all of it. One difference for me is the use of Postal Mail. For me it is just not something I want to receive. It seems inefficient and much less personal because it is a one way interaction. I also cringe at the idea of responding via postal mail.

    For me, the only time I want postal mail is when it is the only form of communication available to the sender. But that is very rare.

    I do feel like the choosing of a special card or postcard can give it more meaning.

  8. Jared Goralnick

    dcpatton, you’re right that postal mail can be a pain and is difficult to reciprocate. Every once in a while it serves a role–like with the “special card or postcard” as you mentioned–I just think that once in a while could be slightly more often.

    But clearly you’re the sort who gets it. The folks who are out leaving warm thoughts on blogs are probably the ones who are thinking of nice things to do to people–via postal mail or otherwise. Thanks for your thoughts!

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