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No matter which social channels you’re using, providing value to users is the best strategy for building relationships.

Social media is constantly evolving, with users finding new ways to employ existing platforms. Popular social channels often undergo major format changes in the race to stay relevant, and new platforms emerge, offering entirely new ways for people to interact digitally.

The cycle is constant, and it can leave even experienced social users questioning the ways in which they use their favorite platforms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this after reading a roundtable post by online marketing and social media pro Carter Hostelley on CMSWire about how people are using LinkedIn in 2014. In the post, Hostelley identifies two big trends that have changed the way people use the site. For years, LinkedIn was used for connecting with people you actually knew in the face-to-face world. Now, users are connecting with strangers more often than ever. That’s happened in part because LinkedIn has consciously worked to become more of a content hub, which leads to an increased focus on audience and reach.

It’s easy to see how these changes would be of note to social-relationship builders, especially those familiar with LinkedIn’s former tight-knit nature. Does a new connection still have meaning if it’s someone you’ve never met? Will a focus on content publishing and reach cause a downturn in the type of interaction that leads to real relationships? The answers are worth exploring, because they apply across every social channel.

Where to Place Your Social Focus

The changes in LinkedIn’s overall game plan speak to the broader debate about how to use social. Is it purely for marketing in the advertising sense, or is it a tool for building real relationships? Of course, the answer depends on how you choose to use it.

I’m a big believer in relationship building, so above all, I like to focus on finding ways to connect. That’s still possible on social, regardless of how a channel or its community changes over time. The first step is simply engaging your connections on a human level. Read their social posts and profile page to find common interests, then use those commonalities as a way to foster conversation.

If you want connections to count, you’ve got to put in the effort. Reach is great but only if you’re reaching people who care about what you’ve got to say. Having a bunch of connections without engaging any of them is like having a cell phone contact list with 2,000 numbers but none you’d feel comfortable calling if you needed a ride to the airport.

Formula for Success

Whether it’s through content creation, sharing, direct interactions or ideally all three, your focus should always be on building and maintaining a true connection with individuals. Make it a learn-learn proposition, and stop focusing only on win-win, which is more about negotiation than growing relationships. Use the content you share and create as a tool to connect, not as the endgame of social interaction.

And connecting with strangers is fine but only if you have a plan for how to engage them and build the relationship after the initial connection is made. Use groups to find like-minded people on LinkedIn, or search relevant hashtags to find potential connections on Twitter. No matter which social channels you’re using, however, understand that giving value is the best strategy for increasing conversion. Period.

Media platforms were undergoing radical changes long before social came along, and that won’t stop anytime soon. The best way to thrive in this ever-changing environment is to have clear values and goals. And no matter which method of communication dominates, you can’t go wrong by listening, being human and working to build and nurture relationships. Make a conscious effort to learn something from everyone you meet, just as they can learn something from you, and you’ll both win in the end.

Start looking at the connection interaction not as win-win but as learn-learn. Win-win is good, but it implies an end. Because once you win, then what? Learn-learn creates a paradigm of ongoing value from which each of you can benefit.

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Photo: iStockphoto

Originally posted OCTOBER 22nd, 2014 American Express OPEN Forum blog

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