I'm continually amazed at how people go barreling into social media sites like a bull in a china shop and then wonder why they aren't well received. They hear social media is changing the way people do business and they make the mistake of thinking it's changing it to something "new" instead of simply changing it back to the way things used to be. (Yes, I know Twitter is new, I mean in spirit.)

I hear people focusing on what's in it for them...and how they can benefit and completely disregarding the idea of participating because they might be able to give something back. It's like the person at a networking event who only wants to size up whether or not you can advance their business before moving on to the next person. It's clear they view people as commodities and stepping stones instead of...well, people.

That's a shame, because when it comes to business, there's nothing that matters more than people and how you treat them.

Building a Business by Building Relationships

grandpa.jpgMy grandfather opened up the first independent insurance agency in the small town I grew up in. Now we all know the stereotypical image of the insurance agent...in-your-face, buddy-buddy, but always trying to make the sale. My grandfather was the complete opposite of this. Oh, he was buddy-buddy...but it's because he's one of the most social people I've ever known.

Grandpa was everyone's friend and wouldn't hesitate to do anything he could to help you out. He knew his customers well. He knew if he should pull out hard candy when you came in the door, or offer you pack of Chicklets chewing gum. He knew your kids names and who they were married to. One time, he put coverage on someone's new car when he saw them drive by the office. Turns out that was a good thing because the fellow had an accident the next day and came in upset about not having coverage yet. You can imagine the word of mouth that was generated when Grandpa told him he had it taken care of.

My grandfather was due to retire in 1985, but that spring our town got hit with an F5 tornado that decimated a huge portion of the township. My grandfather put off his retirement for more than a year so he could stay in the office, working with those families until each and every claim had been processed and paid. He knew those families, knew their needs, knew who they were and didn't feel like the "company" he sold for could handle them as well as he could. More so, he viewed them as friends first and clients second. He couldn't and wouldn't walk out on a friend.

phone.jpgIn fact, when talking to my mom this morning to verify the stories, she reminded me that back when Grandpa was an agent, there were no claims offices. That meant you called your insurance agent and they got up in the middle of the night and came to take care of things. She said one time he got a call because his neighbor had been in a bad car accident. He went to the hospital and found him laying on a gurney in the hallway with a sheet pulled over him. The doctors told my grandfather there was nothing they could do for him. My grandfather got on the phone, called an ambulance from another hospital, got him transferred for treatment and...well, the man lived a long, long time after that.

So why did I just tell you that feel good story?

The Guy Who Knew Everyone

It's to demonstrate how business "used" to be run in towns across America and throughout the world. Back before you bought your insurance online based on the lowest bid, you bought it from a friend who you knew would take care of you. Back before everyone started focusing on making a bazillion dollars, people had time to make relationships without worrying about how those relationships might "advance" their career.

My grandfather practiced the original form of "social networking."

dinner.jpgThere's a lot of talk around social media lately and how great it is to see relationships being made. Social media is giving people the tools to make those personal connections again, though how we use those tools is up to us. Sure, you can hop on Twitter or Facebook and start friending all the "famous" people or the "influentials" but is that really the best way to spend your time?

Social Media Marketing Will Kill Social Media

But I worry about this push for "social media marketing." In fact, when I spoke on the topic at Small Business Marketing Unleashed in Houston, I crossed out the word "marketing" and replaced it with "conversations." Companies that flock to social media because they think it gives them a powerful new place to sell are not only missing the boat, but are destroying the medium for those who are tapping it correctly.

My grandfather didn't go to Rotary meetings or the VFW and focus on chatting up the mayor or city council. Sure, he went to those meetings, but he also knew the guy who worked the gas station pump, the bag boy at the grocery store, the folks who came into the food pantry and pretty much anyone else he ran into.

He lived life by building connections with people, not business potential. Those connections with people paid off because no one felt like he was trying to sell them something. Because of that, he was the first person who came to mind if the topic of insurance agents came up. His business flourished and when he did retire, State Farm had to split his accounts among two agents because one couldn't handle the volume.

These days, if you think of an insurance agent, chances are good you picture someone like Ned Ryerson. You remember...the annoying old school mate of Bill Murray who hounded him relentlessly with fake enthusiasm in Groundhog Day. What happened to the insurance industry? The guys with the fake charm who were only out for the sale made everyone suspicious of even the guy who was genuine.

Smart Companies Are in it for the People

Social Media isn't some amazing new concept that's changing the way we do business. It's simply amazing new technology that's allowing us to return to the way people USED to do business. In the last fifty years we've gone from business being done the way my grandfather did it, to business being run by multi-national corporations who view you as a billing number and who you pick based on price. In the last five to ten years, the Internet has opened things back up.

fatdaddy.jpgYou don't have to buy from Toys R Us anymore. You can buy from Brainwaves Toys, a small shop run by a woman in California who answers customer service calls even at 2am. You don't have to buy a Costco cake for your next birthday party, you can order a CUPCAKES IN A JAR(TM) from Bangerang Bake Shop, a small bakery in Illinois that puts up their inventory on Etsy each Tuesday?

Social Media gives you, as a small business owner, the tool to make and build relationships with people all over the world. The trick, is to focus on the relationship and not the sale. People are happy to buy from people they like and trust. If you have a good product, you don't need to push it. You simply need to raise awareness. Making personal connections and trusting things to flow from there worked 40 years ago for my grandfather. Chances are good it will work for you today in the social media world.

June 2, 2008

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


What an excellent post! I could not agree more and love how you used the stories from your grandfather to highlight your points.

Great article! I completely agree. If people can't make genuine connections with real people they are less likely to care what you have to say or trust your opinions.
Though I use the term all the time, I like the idea of changing the word social media marketing to social media conversations. The line between self-serving marketing relationship building communicators is becoming more difficult to clearly see, especially online. People are becoming more tricky on how they approach marketing.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Great post! I completely agree. I like how you changed Social Media Marketing to Social Media Conversations.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


Thanks! I grew up watching my grandfather as sort of the epitome of how to build a small business. He dropped out of high school to help support his family, then worked in the steel mills, saw the end of that industry coming and stepped out in faith to try and build his own company. Hard times, really hard times. My grandmother tells of owning one skirt (and no pants) during that time period and how without the help of family they wouldn't have made it...

...and I find myself thinking "this is how it's supposed to be." Grandpa wasn't in it to get rich, though he ended up very well off after years of living hand to mouth. He was in it to change people's lives and he saw taking care of them when disaster struck as his way to do it.

My uncle sort of followed in his footsteps. He manages a bank there in town and through three or four different bank moves, he's seen nearly all of his customers migrate with him. (Talk about a selling point for the bank hiring him!) Why? It's not because his banks have the best rates or lowest fees...it's because of his service. Need to close a small business loan, but work during bank hours? He'll come to your company and sign things on your lunch break. Or he'll come to your house that evening after you eat dinner. He says he can't offer better prices, but he can always offer better service.

I look at that line of thinking I wonder how much more potential there is for the companies that really capture the conversation via social media. Look at what Southwest is doing with their blog? They take ideas to their loyal customers before they implement them and without fail, they learn something new that makes their business even stronger.

In fact, seeing you post here reminds me of the contest you guys ran earlier this year to give 50K to a startup. I remember it specifically because someone I know here in Ohio won. ;) It's that giving back to the community and helping give people a boost when they need it that comes back in spades in terms of positive recall and branding.


It's funny because it was literally the morning of that presentation that I made the change. ;) I was looking at the slides and thinking of the audience (small business and folks new to social media) and I thought to myself "I don't want to be another person pushing them to go out and sell." Now I didn't change my slides at all, because they're focused on the conversation, but I found simply by changing the title seemed to change the mindset that comes with the information, you know?

Very nicely done .. I try to constantly remind myself that being in business doesn't mean you have to be ruthless to succeed. Hard working, compassionate, intelligent, and forward thinking can indeed lead to some level of prosperity. Hearing stories like your granddad's helps confirm that for me.

If today's tools can bring us closer to functioning within community relationships like during your grandfather's time, while expanding the geographic boundaries of our impact zone, then I'm all for it.

Thanks for sharing. Some days it seems a particular post hits the spot precisely .. and today this was the one for me.

Many thanks for reminding all of us why social networking sites exist, and that is to deepen the relationship we all have with each other. Community boards and even before then, BBS's served the same purpose. Just because there is new whizbang technology doesn't mean you have to forget your roots. Keep the great articles coming.
Warm Regards,
Rob Lawrence

Loved this article. Very refreshing as to how or why to socially network. Glad you changed the term from marketing to conversations.

Jennifer, this is one of the best posts I have read on social media actually taking us BACK to a previous era. My dad was a great salesman who never pressured anyone to buy. He found out what they wanted and helped them get it, even if it meant sending them somewhere else. He loved people, and they were naturally drawn to him. From Canada to Mexico, I never went anywhere with my father that somebody didn't come up to us and say, "Well, Von, how are you doing?" When I think that social media gives me the opportunity to have a similar impact -- well, I get excited. :-)

I agree with you one some level, but disagree on another. You can't look at how business was done during your grandfather's time and expect the same principals to work today. People today are much more price conscious and cynical about business. There is also a level of sterility that exists where people do not want emotional attachment with the person they are doing business with.

Social Media is being abused as a marketing channel, but to say that insurance would do better by having their agents wake up in the middle of the night to check on a client it ridiculous.

Hi jennifer

Being an marketing executive ...i commented on countless blogs till date ( 50 % of them were genuine and 50% of them were commented to get some link backs :) )

But when i read your post ..i felt like i was slapped tight....
I do agree that every one must change their mind set from Marketing the services to Participate in the Conversations ..

Very well written article and THE BEST article ever read till date

Lastly hats off to your Grandpa

Sad but true that Social Media Marketing will kill Social Media to some degree, which we've already seen with Digg to a small extent. However, as with Digg, or Google for that matter, they learn how not to be gamed and in the big picture those who try gaming the social network communities will ultimately be shunned and someday even banned altogether.

When you strip everything else away, it always has been - and always will be - about relationships. That's just the way human beings are built.

My grandpa was a carpenter who never formally marketed himself, yet never wanted for work. Nice post.

This post was really refreshing. I am so sick of marketers who are always hopping from buzzword to buzzword and continually acting as if all of the worlds marketing problems can be solved by setting up an account on twitter, facebook, and submitting content to digg. Great Post.

Jennifer. A home run article.

You make the essential points tangeable and remind everyone that "social" is the key ingredient that will never change. The more things change, the more they stay the same. ;)

this is exactly what is probably happening trying to give that extra personal touch by multi-national corporations like your grandfather did through the social media. There is thin line between here between selling and building credibility for the sale.
In a way, we are actually, going back to relying more on the word-of-mouth technique of selling thru social media.

Jennifer, I was getting ready to write something in this vain, but your story approach about your grandfather is something I will simply share with my audience (link to you). Very nice!!!


I have always enjoyed your wittings and today is no exception. My blog focuses on real SEO, marketing and web design issues as they relate to small businesses.

I see this group being overlooked by our industry, in general. That is why I like reading what you have to say about small business. However, building online relationships is not as easy as you make it sound.

I am very big into networking and go to lots of small business meetings just like your grandpa. I really enjoy these events and look forward to them. Working the crowd is a very fulfilling experience for me.

Translating this in the online world has been very difficult. My writings are geared not to the SEO crowd, but to the small business owner. However, it just hasn't begun to click. It is not as easy as you may make it sounds or at least for me.

I agree with what you are saying but that doesn't make accomplishing it any easier.

Loved you thoughtful story. I am going to start each day thinking about how I can "Raise Awarenes" about my business and go from there! Thanks for caring about others.

Interesing analogy. Thanks Jen

I really like your style!!

I have been reading your articles for some time now and have to admit, they keep me coming back for more. No fads, gimmicks, tricks or get-rich-quick content, just solid and sustainable advice.

This latest article is probably one of the best that I have read and illustrates the point perfectly: the web is a fantastic arena, filled with unimaginable opportunities - success comes from understanding the online environment, working hard and creating long-term sustainable relationships with prospects and clients.

My Ecommerce business took three years of hard work to really take off. A long time in the online World? Probably, but it will still be here in 10 years time, more successful than ever before - unlike the 'fad' sites that seem to pop up and disappear virtually overnight.

Keep up the good work and thank you for your excellent articles.


Very well said and thank goodness.

Thanks Jennifer. I hope to convince more of our clients that, as you said, going back to the old way of doing business ("it's all about relationships") is the best course of action. No more blasts, no more impersonal PR jargon.

Well done!

Jennifer, thank you for the article and a timely reminder about using Social Media, get-back-to-basics way. Too many other articles telling small businesses to use this and that online tools but forgotten about the human elements in building relationship and trust.

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