A huge amount of community-building and marketing today is done online, which makes sense, considering that people now spend 4.7 hours a day on their phones. All of this online activity generates a tremendous amount of data, which is a goldmine for marketers.
It may seem on the surface like the marketing community has left the notion of offline, in-person relationships in the dust, but in fact, the hyperconnectivity of our current day has thrown the need for face-to-face marketing into sharp relief. As more and more marketers turn to digital channels, it grows increasingly difficult for each marketer to get their message heard. The noise out there is deafening.
I set out to research just why face-to-face marketing is so important today. The benefits of face-to-face marketing are more difficult to quantify than the digital approach (online, everything can be measured), but I was able to distill my findings down to four key areas: nonverbal communication, social identity theory, empathy, and Dunbar’s number. Let’s take a deeper look.
Note that much of the information contained in this post will apply to recruiters, too. After all: we always say that recruiters can learn a lot from marketers.
1. Nonverbal Communication
Research shows that body language is often more important in revealing what people want than the actual words they say. For example, if someone says “Yeah, right” in person, you can immediately gauge whether they are being sarcastic or agreeing with you by paying attention to their tone of voice and body language. If someone types “Yeah, right” online, the subtleties of the expression are lost, which can lead the recipient down a rabbit hole of uncertainty.
Face-to-face communication also enables marketers to leverage nonverbal cues for their own advantage. By “nonverbal cues,” I don’t mean “using Jedi mind tricks to hide droids,” or any of those creepy “seem more authoritative with these three nonverbal cues” sales techniques. What I mean is that research shows that in-person communication makes it easier to bond, leading to stronger relationships — and strong relationships are a must for recruiters and marketers alike.
2. Social Identity Theory
Humans are more comfortable around people with whom we can identify, and the groups of people we identify with help us interact with the world.
Social Identity Theory breaks our social interactions down into three stages: categorization, identification, and social comparison.
Putting people into categories helps us understand how to interact with them. How confusing would it be to travel if you couldn’t distinguish between the flight attendants, gate attendants, pilots, and passengers?
Once we sort everyone into categories, we place ourselves into one of those groups and adopt that group’s identity. If you think of yourself as a frequent traveler, you’ll identify with other frequent travelers and adopt their practices — goodbye shoes with laces and checked baggage! The more you identify with a category, the more your self-esteem is tied to group membership.
Finally, there is the social comparison stage. Once your self-esteem is tied up in a group, that group needs to compare favorably to other groups. With your sleek carry-on bag and your business-class line-jumping privileges, you view yourself as superior to (or at least distinct from) the airport masses.
So, what does this have to do with marketing? Spending time with people enables you to establish that you are part of the same group, whatever that group may be. Business/brand guru Seth Godin refers to these groups as “tribes”: “What people really want is the ability to connect to each other, not to companies,” writes Godin.
Tribe-building is much more effective offline. It gives you the opportunity to form authentic connections with people and convince them (subtly or otherwise) that they are part of your group. And once you identify as part of the same group, your fellow group members will go out of their ways to make you look great to others (because it reflects positively back on them as well).
A great example of how this works in the marketing world is the Yelp Elite Squad. These people get special badges on their Yelp profiles and are invited to private, real-world events. The more Yelpers hang out together and get to do “insider-y” things, the more they’ll talk about the places they go and the more they’ll promote Yelp. Yelp strengthened its community by creating a real-world, offline tribe.
Empathy is one of the most important components of friendship, but for humans, it is difficult to feel empathy for strangers. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. You don’t know what a stranger is going to do, so you get stressed out. If you’re stressed out, you aren’t going to have strong feelings if something bad happens to that person, because you’ll be too busy making sure nothing bad happens to yourself.
This can create a challenge for brands and marketers as they try to foster connections between strangers. The good news is that it doesn’t take much to transition from a “stranger” into “friend,” at least in terms of producing an emotional, empathetic response. One study from McGill University found that playing the video game Rock Band with a stranger for 15 minutes is enough to reduce social stress and overcome the hurdle of unfamiliarity.
If you want to get your influencers sharing your news, content, or the love they have for your products, you need to override their stranger-danger responses. Once they consider you a friend, they are more likely to be excited by your news, to understand what motivates you, and to share your triumphs. Meeting them face-to-face — even if it’s just for 15 minutes — can make all the difference.
4. Dunbar’s Number
Dunbar’s number is the theoretical limit to the number of people with whom you are able to sustain meaningful social relationships. Your closest allies represent a group of around 5-10 people with whom you are in regular contact, while you can maintain “let’s get a beer”-type relationships with about 150 people. The people in your closest allies group shape the way you think and provide a major support network, while the people in the wider circle are your network amplifiers.
One of the effects of social media is that we now think it is possible to maintain relationship with hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. However, quality matters more than quantity. People in your Dunbar circle represent some of your greatest assets. They will go out of their way to help you, and you will go out of your way to help them. They also have their own networks of allies and amplifiers that they can connect you to, and those personal introductions are going to be far more effective than cold calling or spray-and-pray emailing could ever be.
Getting the most out of your network requires expending effort to build and maintain strong relationships. By putting time aside each week to meet with people on the fringes of your network, you can bring them back into the fold. High-quality connections, which are far more fulfilling and valuable than weak ties, require face-to-face communication to cultivate.
Marketing gets increasingly digital every year, but that doesn’t mean offline interaction is losing any of its power. In fact, your commitment to building real-world relationships with your customers and professional network could help you stand apart. So put down your phone, step away from your computer, and carve out time for some good old fashioned face-to-face communication.