Cultivating Your Network Isn’t a “Should Do” Task

Right now, I’m raising money for a 15 year old blind kid somewhere in Utah who wants to record his first CD. A few years ago, Kuha’o Case was sat in front of a piano for the first time and discovered that he wasn’t just interested in piano: he was insanely talented at it. He learned by himself, plays by ear, can’t read a lick of sheet music (blind, I mentioned, right?), and can hear a song once or twice and play his own interpretation exceptionally well.

I decided to push my network to help him raise the $30,000 he wants for the project. Why? No reason. Jesse Stay, a colleague in the same space, posted a link to the project that I saw on the morning I wrote this article, and I watched the little video, found it moving, and decided that it’d be fun to get this guy his money. But what’s really interesting to me is learning whether my network will perform.

I started by asking Neil Gaiman for a retweet. Neil has more followers than me, and his famous musician girlfriend, Amanda Palmer, just raised over $1 million on Kickstarter for her project, so I felt he’d be sympathetic. He was. At least enough to click the retweet button. I also sent the post to Bassnectar, whose first name is Lorin, because the kid did a cover of one of Lorin’s songs, so I felt he’d want to spread it. I also turned to my Twitter network plus my blog plus my Google+ network and asked them for $10.

This is where it gets a bit depressing, but where it also will help us understand why cultivating a network is critical.

If I ask 210,000 people for $10, and 1% of them say yes: That’s $21,000. That means that 1 on every 100 people who follows me on my various social networks could solve this request in about 10 minutes and go back to whatever it is they’re doing. But that didn’t happen. So far, I’ve only raised about $1000, and some of that was my money. That means that I couldn’t convince more than 100 people to give $10.

There are other ways I could have accomplished this goal. I’m friends with plenty of reasonably successful people. I could have asked the right 300 of them for 100 dollars, and I’d be done faster. I could have sought a business sponsor to match 10,000, and then used that to leverage the money. But all of these require a bit more of an ask, and this project, while important, isn’t the same as my core charity/fundraising efforts (homelessness and autism). So, learning who to ask, how much to ask, when to tax your network, and more, are part of this. Let’s talk about some more of the knobs we can and should tweak.

How Big Is Your Network

Most people don’t think of the people they interact with as a network, and some people accidentally mislabel their connections as a network. Both are something to consider, and it’s up to you to determine who’s who. The biggest mistake people make is over-counting people they “can” reach as being in their network. This is practically the entire basis of public relations measurement, in my somewhat jaded opinion.

For instance, though 210,000 people follow me on Twitter, probably a few thousand are people who know me fairly well, another ten thousand are very versed in my work, beyond that are people who subscribe to me because their friends do, and beyond that are maybe robots and people who don’t actually use the system. Of that number, though, how many do I think will stand up and take on any challenge at my request? Let’s call that number 200, though on some days it might be five or six people.

You should think about this the same way: there are “people you could reach, people who might notice, people who pay attention, people who care, and people who love you.” Those lists should be smaller and smaller and smaller, obviously. So how do you work with them?

How do you Cultivate a Network?

Some people (like me) work to grow an audience and then convert some percentage of them into a community. Through my writing, my speaking, my social network presence, my video shows, and more, I have built up a following of people who are interested when I create something. But from that number, the way I’ve cultivate relationships is that I do one of the following (in order of their level of involvement):

  1. Acknowledge and respond to people who speak to me.
  2. Point out the good works of others.
  3. Promote someone else’s product or service.
  4. Show allegiance or camaraderie with certain people.
  5. Offer to help certain people.
  6. Passively seek repeat opportunities to pass business to other people.
  7. Actively pass business to other people and actively help them grow business through promotion, partnership, joint ventures, and selling.
  8. Partner with other people.

Those are the eight ways I know how to do it. #1 is anything from commenting back to someone on Twitter, to answering an email, to replying to a comment someone has left on my website. #2 is anything from my retweeting someone else’s work, or linking to someone’s blog post, etc. #3 is what I did at the top of this letter, by promoting Kuha’o Case’s project. And so on.

I think most of us stay around the 1-3 level and rarely venture further into the fray. If so, then it’s unlikely that you’ve got a very responsive or participatory network. 1-3 is the “you scratch my back” set and isn’t especially motivated to help you beyond what you’ve done for them when the time comes.

But obviously, 4-6 take some time, and 7-8 are actual work. And there, of course, is where you find the gold. It takes work to get value. And that’s the work that needs doing.

An Assignment

If you’re serious about wanting to grow and cultivate the value of your network, open up a spreadsheet. Start listing the names and whatever contact info you have of people, and then assign them a rank of 1-8 of what you’ve done for them LATELY. The next-to-last column are notes from your last interaction. The last column is the date of your last interaction.

Remember: you SHOULD have more 1-3 ranks than most other numbers. But if you don’t have any 7-8s, you don’t have much of a network. Never on this spreadsheet keep track of who you feel owes YOU a favor. There’s never any value in that. If you do it right, you’ll have done so many favors and done so much to build up the quality of the 7-8s that if you have to ask for help, you’ll feel confident that you’ve done so.

Oh, and if the last two columns are fading, it’s less likely that your 7-8 ranks are accurate, are they? So, adjust them and move on.

One final detail: you’ll get a lot further and gain a lot more success if you don’t work on the “stature” of the people you help and serve. Meaning, don’t kiss up. Instead, promote the rising stars. They will always do more with you over the years than those who have “made it” and don’t likely need your help. That’s vital.