The 4 Types of Digital Relationships

Developing a relationship with your digital audience is the ultimate goal of the modern marketer. In fact, it’s probably the singular, most important shift in marketing today (from broadcast marketing to engagement marketing). And I would argue that escalating relationships to intimacy (where people are willingly giving up information) should be what motivates any marketer to engage with people one-on-one in the digital world.

But let’s be honest, not everyone wants an intimate relationship with a brand or a company. Understanding what they want is the first step in providing a relevant, contextual experience with your brand in the digital world (no one wants to get something they don’t want). So what kind of relationships are there? I’ve outlined a few:

  • You don’t see me. For whatever reason, some people want a relationship that is invisible. You know I am here and I know I am here but I don’t want anyone to acknowledge it. Men like these relationships a lot. It’s the reason they never ask for directions. How does it translate to the digital world? By ensuring that you have provided all the details about how your company helps people, what it sells, how your product/service works, etc. This enables these people to help themselves all the while internally singing your praises for being informative and helpful.
  • Acknowledgement. Some people want a relationship that just says, “hey, I see you there.” Maybe it’s a head nod or a tip of the hat. In the digital world, this translates to liking their comments on Facebook or maybe even replying but never sending them a direct message. They don’t want one-to-one interaction. They want to feel like they are part of the conversation but not actually be part of it. This is a person that will probably click a lot on the links you post into social media.
  • Attention hound. You know these people. In grade school they always had their hand up. They always had the loudest voice in group discussions. They want to be heard. How do you have a relationship like this in the digital world? You elevate them in the conversation. If they are talented enough, you invite them to write some content for you. You write thought-provoking content that enables them to comment with their ideas and their opinions. You empower them to hold court.
  • BFF. The top of the digital relationship pyramid. These are intimate relationships in which people have  made a connection. Maybe they read a piece of content (and think you “get it”). Maybe they’ve had a few conversations via social media. Whatever they feel like you and your brand messaging understand them (and it helps that they love your product and rave about it to friends). In the digital world, BFFs usually aren’t Attention Hounds but they want to feel involved. They want special attention (i.e., a members-only section on the website or part of a special committee). Let’s fact it, you are asking information from them for a reason, right? Give them sneak previews. Give them red-carpet treatment. Produce content just for them (that they can send to their friends).

Okay, so that’s all fine-and-dandy but how does it translate to business? Two ways. First is with your content strategy. The kind of content that you produce should specifically target these four relationship types. Remember that you want a relationship with everyone. Some will require work, some won’t. Below are some sample content items you could develop to foster each kind of relationship:

  • You don’t see me: datasheets, product specifications, customer case studies, web content about you and your company, tips and tricks to using your product.
  • Acknowledgement: helpful industry-related content, tips and tricks, social media posts of “top ten reasons” or “five things you didn’t know”
  • Attention hound: thought-leadership and thought-provoking ideas about topics related to the challenges your product solves, whitepapers, e-books
  • BFF: behind-the-scenes articles about your company and product, articles providing special insight into key challenges, “voice of the expert”

Second is with your engagement strategy. How do you foster the relationship? I argue that you want as many BFFs as possible but let’s face it, not everyone will become one. Heck, most people won’t. Still you have to identify those that have the possibility of ascending to intimacy on the digital relationship pyramid and fostering it. Below are some examples of engagement channels most used by each relationship type:

  • You don’t see me: your website, third-party sites with your content
  • Acknowledgement: your website, third-party sites with your content, and your social media outlets,
  • Attention hound: your blog/third-party sites with your content (where they can comment) and your social media outlets
  • BFF: email, newsletters, “members only” section on your website, your social media outlets

Finally, don’t take these relationship types as hard and fast segmentation. There are lots of subtleties. Of course most people will fall primarily into one but they may drift into other relationship types. By exposing this all I’m saying is that it’s important for marketers to understand that there are relationship types and to map against them. In marketing we often talk about personas and content strategy and buyer’s journey. But we often forget that everyone we are trying to engage with is a person that has a preferred way of engaging with us. So along with all that messaging strategy you are putting together, don’t forget the kinds of relationships you can form. It will help you look more like a human being and less like a marketer.

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