Back to the future: are old-fashioned real-world connections the way forward?

By Albert Robinson


I have a friend who runs a small business who does not have a Facebook page, has no idea what Tweeting is, and is not in LinkedIn. He has little, if any idea, what social media marketing is all about. Frankly, he could not care less about social networks. Sending emails, taking the occasional photo of his children on his mobile phone, and sending an SMS probably outlines the extent of his knowledge of the world of instant communications.


What he does have, though, is an uncanny ability to connect with people. Not on a laptop and not via his mobile phone, but with actual people. Face-to-face. Put him in a room with a stranger, and within minutes – and usually in less than one minute – he will often find a connection. A real-world connection: someone they both know from the business world, or with whom they studied or worked in the past.


I was thinking of this friend recently while attending a business conference in Tel Aviv. One of the three tracks of the conference was about online marketing, a hot-button topic. How do you market your company and sell your products via the Web was the overall theme. How do you monetize a Web site – or what used to be called: how do you make money from your site.


The over-riding impression that I came away with was that of many young people walking around giving the impression of being highly connected. Sitting in a lecture or listening to a panel discussion, barely a minute would pass without them frenziedly checking their smartphones for the latest WhatsApp message or email. Is a lack of concentration a pre-requisite for succeeding in online business? During one, approximately 20 minute lecture by a senior overseas Facebook manager, I must have moved at least 50 times to let people in and out of their seats.


Do these conferences actually achieve anything? The same talking heads often give the same generic speeches around the world without actually tailoring them for the level of the specific local audience. The Facebook manager, by the way, informed us that in order to start off we needed to open a page. And, just in case you are not aware, it's all about engagement. Meanwhile, a senior executive from L'Oreal said the firm had made a strategic decision to go online with its marketing and advertising. It turns out that newspapers and magazines are, apparently, somewhat old hat.


There are lessons there for all speakers and presenters: if you are invited to speak at a seminar or panel at a trade show or conference, then make sure your speech is finely tuned to the needs and level of the audience. There are few turn-offs larger than being treated as an amateur when you come with a wealth of knowledge to which you were hoping to add.


My friend, by the way, I have long thought, does business in a very old-fashioned and probably inefficient way. He spends much of his day driving around meeting people, at cafes, factories and offices. Even when he does not actually have a specific business transaction in the offing, he goes and visits them anyway, makes small talk and then moves on.


He does what people have been doing for thousands of years and which, it seems, is now regarded as old-fashioned. He makes and reinforces actual human connections. His only tool for doing so is the mobile phone. Let's meet, let's talk. Maybe something will come of it – and it often does. Even if he does not secure any business from the meeting, he will suggest the person speaks to a colleague or friend of his who can help him. The resulting goodwill means that at some point in the future that favor is likely to be returned.


It's not a very sexy way of doing business. It is not high-tech, there are no social media involved, it is not digital and no sophisticated research is required to identify new trends. It's all about talking and interacting and selling real items that, in his case, companies need in order to do things as diverse as making food, and building houses.


The diamond industry, overall, has not tightly embraced the social networks as a means of creating new business, and they may be right. Marketing products and communicating via the social networks have become indispensable for many people and companies. And there is no doubt that they can play a critical role in helping create and strengthen connections. But, ironically, traveling to the other side of the world to attend a tradeshow or to visit companies may still provide a better return on investment than employing someone to take care of social networking.


So, the next time you are updating your status, or posting pictures or short movies, consider whether that time would be more profitably spent identifying potential customers and telephoning the firm and making an appointment to visit.