Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is there no substitute for face-to-face?

I’ve been having numerous conversations about how there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. And I understand this – we’ve been using the medium of the face-to-face for a lot longer than we’ve been using any other form of communication. We can see and sense each other in physical real-time 3D, and have all those rich qualities engaged. Yet face-to-face is not always possible, practicable or affordable – for business and personal – in our globalised world. So what to do?

I’ve been musing on the multi-layered approaches that communications mediums now offer us. The different types of relationships this means and enables, particularly in what is now called the ‘social’ environment. So we have social media, social networking, social business, social CRM, social marketing, the list goes on. They all mean different things to different people. What does this really mean as a movement?

To me it speaks of the changing nature of relationships and their potential beyond the borders and reach of the face-to-face. There is only so much time and ability to always connect in the face-to-face. Yet individuals and organisations collectively can do so much more in the virtual realm. It’s not a substitute for face-to-face – it’s a value-add or it's a new dimension, and can keep relationships going on many different levels. Levels that we have not seen before. Some might think these are not ‘real’ relationships in the way we have traditionally thought of them. Many of us are not comfortable with this.

Face-to-face communication has been around as long as humans have been on the planet. It’s ancient. The newer forms enabled by the web have been around for what, just over 10 years? And only in the last few years has this last round of ‘social’ communication become mainstream – it’s no longer a case of ‘if’, it’s now ‘when’ will you dip your toe in the waters of these mediums – both the shallows and the depths.

It's opened up the potential to go beyond the physical. Some people I connect with online, e.g. via Twitter, I may rarely or never meet in person. Yet this does not dis-count the value of the connection. I now have the opportunity to share knowledge, find out what they are working on and how this relates to my interests. And I can be selective about who I do and don’t follow, just as I am in face-to-face life.

I believe people and organisations will become better at using and managing these, and bring their human face-to-face behaviours into the virtual. It’s already happening, it’s all part of how we keep our relationships connected – and that can be business-to-consumer as well as consumer-to-consumer, manager-to-team, colleague-to-colleague and friend-to-friend. They happen on many different levels, when face-to-face is not a viable option. Or to introduce a new dimension that can be useful and meaningful to whatever it is. The guiding principle is to participate as if we were face-to-face – and keep it real.

So as a ‘consumer’, I can feel connected to a brand that makes the products I need and like, and can even participate in co-creation. Much has been said of Lego in this regard, where you can design your own Lego kit, and have it made up for you and share with other enthusiasts; or even the well-known Old Spice example
where the Old Spice guy (and of course his team) made real-time customised video messages upon request via Twitter and YouTube. The success of these kinds of approaches is that on some level, a real connection is made. Even if it is kind of transient and for fun (or to build an authentic brand connection).

We are social creatures and how we relate to each other is what drives us (and the organisation) forwards (or backwards, depending on the constructiveness of the relationship). Best that we all understand how to use it ‘for good’ in our multi-dimensional world. That goes for face-to-face as well as virtual. And that we keep our web of relationships connected using whatever medium makes sense for us and ‘fit for purpose’.