User-friendly friendships.

There's an important common factor between your online and real-life friends.

Last week, we attended a joint gathering of advertising professionals and social network marketers. You’d think these people would mingle like crazy. No so. In fact, for most of the gathering, the event looked more like an eight grade dance, with each group standing on its own side, eyeing the other warily.

Ultimately, a few people from each organization ventured forth, and eventually everyone was interacting and getting to know one another.

What’s interesting is that many of these same people wouldn’t think twice about confirming a friend request online. And in fact, many were already online friends. But almost all were more standoffish in real life. And that says something about the difference between real friends and social network friends.

Anthropologists cite research that most people have a circle of no more than about 150 total “friends.” They usually consist of an inner circle of five "core" people and an additional layer of about 10. These 15 people (typically including family members) are a central group. Outside that, there’s another circle of about 35 close (but not necessarily confidant) friends. Beyond that, there’s another circle of about 100 people who are significant enough acquaintances to be called friends. That’s about as many real-life friendships as most people can handle cognitively.

Online, however, most of us know someone who has hundreds, if not thousands of Facebook or other network friends. It seems that many folks spend their time bringing people into their online circles, and take pride in the total numbers.

But that’s the exception rather than the rule. A Rapleaf study of social network sites indicates that the average number of online friends is more in line with what you’d expect in real life:

- 80% have fewer than 100 friends. (Women have on average 62 friends. Men have on average 57 friends.)

- 9% have more than 100 friends. (Women, 185, Men 172)

- Less than 1% have more than 1,000 friends

- .02% have more than 10,000 friends

All this comes back to the definition of “friend,” and how it might be different (or the same) in the real and online worlds.

Looking for the overlap

We suspected trust was the issue with our gathering last week that hindered people initially from talking to each other. Trust is a key factor for selecting friends in real world. It’s a little more lax in cyberspace, because most social networks only present the positive aspects of an individual. People aren’t as invested as they are with real life friendships, and there’s always the “unfriend” button you can use with minimal consequence.

But by using the word “friend” online (or “contact” as Linked In does), the perception is that we might have closer connections to our online acquaintances than we would acknowledge if we were meeting them face to face.

Take a look at this example: when asked whom would they believe most about a product or service, most people said their real-life friends first. That's natural. But the next most-trusted group is friends (or strangers) online.

An April 2009 Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey of over 25,000 Internet consumers from 50 countries found that 90% of consumers say they trust recommendations from people they know. The second-most trusted source of information (at 70%) is consumer opinions posted online (whether they knew the people or not).

This was equaled by brand websites (70%), then followed by editorial content (69%), brand sponsorships (64%), TV (62%), newspapers (61%), and magazines (59%).

Testimonials of any kind typically carry more weight than other types of promotions or content (see our post on testimonials here). But the level of trust placed on online friends or peers is noteworthy.

It may not be the same as a real-life friendship, but the trust connection is still valuable. And it can vary in different social network situations.

Mothers are an interesting example. Moms are especially active in social networks, and they tend to create two key friendship groups, real-life friends and “mommy” friends whom they may or may have not met in person. “Mommy” friends interact with social networks differently than they do with other social network friends, and in networks focused on mothers (like BabyCenter) 71% will share information that they wouldn’t on a more general network like Facebook.

B to B Magazine cites the example of a direct marketing maven who has more than 6,000 Linked In contacts, and who is using them successfully as a starting point to create conversation groups in different cities about marketing issues—groups that ultimately position him as an expert and a resource.

So there is a level of comfort and trust with online friends that marketers will find helpful in building business relationships. Here are some observations:

  • Online connections can be definite icebreakers for communications. Facts you learn about people in social networks are great for starting other conversations.
  • You can introduce your product or service into the conversation, but you can't force it. The moment you begin “marketing,” you violate the trust rules of the relationship. You’re better off suggesting a topic and letting others take it over.
  • Brace for the bad as well as the good. You don’t control the conversation, and you can get criticism. If you do, treat it as if it were coming from a friend and address the issues accordingly.
  • Be aware of different levels of “intimacy” with different networks. A broadbased network like Facebook will be less interested in details than a network focusing on a hobby or special interest.
  • Find ways to encourage comments, especially if you believe they’re going to be mostly positive. Again, testimonials are strong, even from strangers.

To learn more click here or call us at 865-330-0033.