Relationship Renaissance: Can You Handle Internet Dating?

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David Armano David Armano
Several weeks ago, approximately 90 people got together in New York City to socialize, network and discuss the future of marketing communications. By the time the weekend was over, many would have established strong bonds that will likely last years. Some will do business together. Others will have made investments that will pay over time. All of them left feeling a sense of "belonging." And most of them had never met in person prior to the weekend. Sound familiar?

We're All "Internet Dating" Now
Well, not so much in the romantic sense, but if you've ever known someone who has tried dating over the internet they will describe a phenomenon where you spend a considerable amount of time getting to know another person virtually. Even though you've never met them before, you feel intimately connected to them through your interactions and communications online. Then one day you actually meet them in person. The "F2FD-Day" (Face to Face Date Day). And you have a million thoughts racing through your mind. Will they be as you envisioned them? Will the relationship be as rewarding as it was online? Will it be better? Or will you be disappointed?

There are similar social experiences that resemble this dynamic happening on a near daily basis across the world. Bloggers used to call them "Geek Dinners." More recently, users of the social network called Twitter call them "Tweet-Ups." Turned off yet? Let's take this down to the non-tech bare essentials. Below is a quote from my contribution to the collaborative book called "The Age of Conversation":

'Age of Conversation'
'Age of Conversation'
"Technology has enabled us to meet our very human wants, needs and desires in new ways. This viewpoint also carries credibility as you can make the case that our behavior is simply evolving over time thanks to recent advancements.

But are we also seeing another Renaissance unfold before our very eyes? A Renaissance built off of us discovering each other? A Renaissance composed of a human web woven through shared knowledge, interests, creativity, and yes, conversation? Is it simply a resurgence of connectedness and an answer to this question:

Am I alone?

The answer is no. You are not alone. There are millions of people out there, just like you. You play an integral role in the Relationship Renaissance. You matter."

Can Brands Play a Role in the "Relationship Renaissance"?
My thoughts on this "Relationship Renaissance" are meant to highlight the fact that as much as technology has it's downsides (think crack berries, email abuse and internet addiction), new relationships are being formed enabled through networks and communities. Empowered users are finding each other. And what starts out digital, ends up being reinforced in the real world. The question is -- can brands play a role in this world where people are finding and influencing each other? The answer is yes.

Interestingly enough, Microsoft has a model that's worth thinking about. They identify and hire influential members of niche communities to serve as "evangelists." I know several "User Experience Evangelists," and the majority of their job is acting as "connectors," reaching out into communities bringing people together at events and providing value through thought leadership. Sure, people are always suspect about a big company like Microsoft "buying their trust," but at the end of the day when you've just left a great event that could have not have happened without the investment from Microsoft, you can't help but have some level of appreciation. In short, if with the help of their evangelists you've made quality connections then they have done a service for their own brand in addition to providing a valuable service.

Relationship Brokers in an Age of Consumer Empowerment
Right now, there is a huge opportunity for brands to act as sort of a "relationship broker." That's right -- keep thinking about this in that "we're all internet dating metaphor." Fact is that average consumers like me and you are more empowered than we've ever been. So instead of settling down with one brand, we have choices. We don't have to stand for being treated poorly. We can flirt with others and leave a relationship the minute someone comes along and provides a better experience. The internet has become the great equalizer.

There's no doubt that the the first thing a brand in trouble needs to do is improve their products, service and support. But many brands, such as Dell and most recently Starbucks are realizing that listening and acting as "relationship brokers," creating virtual communities that sometimes end up connecting people together can lead to a perception that your brand is interested in something beyond profit.

Anyone who's ever been in a relationship can tell you it's a game of give and take. Why should it be any different for brands?
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