Friendpower: Less Is Definitely MORE

How many of your friends on Facebook would really send business your way? The correct answer should be 'all of them.'

March 1, 2011

I’ve spent much of the last year unfriending people on Facebook. At my peak, I had more than 1,400 friends on my personal profile page; today, about 400 remain.

That may sound like an unusual social networking strategy, especially for someone who holds the title of social media manager for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. Indeed, I’m the same person who has helped NAR earn more than 70,000 likes on its Facebook page and has more than 6,000 "followers" on Twitter. And yet I’m going through my personal friend list with a fine-tooth comb.

Why? I feel that when it comes to Facebook, or any social network for that matter, having a friend shouldn’t be taken too lightly. Today, after months of quietly deleting "friends," I can say with confidence that the 400 who remain truly are my friends—online and in the real world. They’re the ones who would open the doors of opportunity for me; they would recommend me to their peers and defend me when I’m not around. And I’d take these 400 friends over a million fans on a Facebook business page any day.

I may not sell real estate—I did, for several years, work on the mortgage side of the business—but I believe that by focusing my networking time and effort on fewer people, I’ve forged stronger relationships that have led me to greater career and personal success. I know my friends and they know me, so I can be myself. And because of this, I can build connections that transfer seamlessly when I see them in person.

There’s science behind my desire to cull my friend list to a manageable number. Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary anthropology with the University of Oxford, is known for his theory that there’s a "cognitive limit" to the number of individuals with whom one person can maintain stable relationships. He doesn’t propose an exact value, but a so-called "Dunbar’s Number" has been estimated at about 150 people. The average Facebook user has 130 friends. Coincidence?

As social marketers, real estate practitioners are taught that this business is a numbers game. The more people you meet, the better the chance that you’ll get the call when someone needs help buying, selling, leasing, or managing a piece of property. When you think of it that way, Facebook and other online social networks seem like ideal tools for expanding your sphere. These networks make it faster and easier than ever to build relationships with more and more people, right?

Not really. Marketing and networking are two very different disciplines. While the Web makes it easy to broadcast marketing messages to consumers, those relationships tend to become shallower as the size of the audience increases—unless, of course, you’re really tending to every person in your network, and that takes more time than most real estate practitioners can afford to give.

As a result, when real estate professionals try to apply the numbers marketing game to online social networks, it often doesn’t work as expected. It’s not Facebook’s fault; it’s the result of unrealistic expectations placed on this new medium. When the numbers game is applied to a direct mail campaign, the expected response rate is very, very small. If the same broadcast message is applied to a social network, why would anyone expect the result to be different?

What do you know about them?

The key is to focus not on how many friends you have online but on how well you know each of them. Business columnist and networking guru Harvey Mackay, in his book Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive (Ballantine Books, 1996), provides a different number—the "Mackay 66." It’s a list of 66 questions that he says salespeople should be required to ask or know of their clients to fully understand their personality and needs. Mackay’s list includes political affiliations, educational background, favorite restaurants, and even drinking habits and sources of pride.

The theory behind the list is that salespeople who know the most about their clients will have a natural advantage over business competitors. Now, here’s where online social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are helpful. These sites are a goldmine for acquiring personal information and learning about your prospects.

But for real estate practitioners who’ve focused mainly on acquiring thousands of online "friends" in their pursuit to win the marketing numbers game, how likely is it that even a quarter of the questions in the Mackay 66 are being researched? Rather than play the numbers game, carry over what you already know about forging business connections. The long-term success of most professionals in the real estate industry is based on a well-established sphere of influence that includes key people who can deliver business opportunities through direct and referral business. These relationships are traditionally built by participating in small groups—places of worship, charities, schools, and clubs. To establish those relationships online, the same sort of intimate conditions need to be created.

To start, you must identify people with whom you want to network and then abate the noise from everyone else. Sure, connecting to 5,000 other real estate pros may lead to some relocation referrals, but most real estate is local. So focus on finding and networking with local professionals, business owners, community activists, and like-minded individuals.

Once you have a general profile of the individuals and type of people you need to reach in your networking efforts, your next step is to seek out and join the online communities where these people are likely to be participants. Conduct a search for these groups on local Web sites, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Search for keywords on Twitter and follow those who fall into your profile.

For example, let’s say your local newspaper has established a Facebook forum for people who are passionate about the restoration of your community’s parks. If you share that passion, why not join the discussion, talk about your involvement in parks’ restoration, and provide the group’s members with useful data about parks’ impact on real estate sales? If a particular community doesn’t exist, you may have the opportunity to create one. To create a group on Facebook, just search for "Group" and click on Groups App. Then click on Create Group. The process is simple. Once you’re done, invite like-minded friends—and start networking.

You aren’t limited to one such group—but make sure you join or start groups only where you have both a true interest and the capacity to maintain close contact with the group’s members.

Make stronger bonds

After you’ve created a basis for your online networking sphere, your focus should shift to strengthening your relationship with every "friend" you have. Brothers and coauthors Ori and Rom Brafmen share some relevant insight about forging stronger interpersonal relationships in their book Click: The Magic of Instant Connections (Crown Business, 2010). They say that in creating a bond with others, there are three catalysts that can speed up your connection: similarities, vulnerabilities, and proximity.

  •  Similarities, or commonalities as I like to call them, are shared opportunities or interests—some examples are a common religious belief, a political cause, a love of dogs, or being parents of children who go to the same school. A commonality can be as simple as two people experiencing the same weather; that’s why the weather is something we often talk about with people we don’t know very well.
  •  Vulnerabilities often come as a result of commonalities. Citing religious, political, and other personal viewpoints exposes us to those who disagree, but the willingness to express those ideas also forms bonds with like-minded individuals.
  •  Proximity is the most powerful catalyst so, when you network online, meeting people in person should be one of your primary goals. Networking sites like Meetup ( come in handy. This site helps people in any given location organize and meet in real life. Then, there are "Tweetups," in-person meetings facilitated on Twitter. You can find them by visiting and searching for the name of your city, followed by the word "tweetup" (for example, "Denver tweetup"). Often, the single commonality of those at a Tweetup is that everyone uses Twitter. The important part is to find or create opportunities to meet in person; Facebook "poking" will never replace a good old-fashioned handshake in building relationships.

Dealing in commonalities and vulnerabilities, while filtering for proximity, creates many networking opportunities. However, expressing vulnerability to people without commonality can be alienating and counterproductive to your marketing efforts. For example, if you share pictures on Facebook of your deep sea fishing vacation to Mexico, some of your friends will relate it to their own fishing trips and appreciate that you shared. Other people might wonder why you’re having fun in Mexico while their house hasn’t sold yet. The difference in how people react to information depends on how well they know and trust you. The bottom line is that sharing could be risky because of your potential to alienate. But it also can lead to stronger relationships.

For this reason, it’s vital to establish boundaries for each online networking site you participate in and be choosy about whom you invite to belong to each.

Twitter might serve you better for broad marketing messages to thousands of followers, while LinkedIn or another professional network becomes the platform for communicating with your peers. Private microcommunities like Ning or Facebook Groups are ideal for networking with people of common, narrow interests. Different combinations of these groups will work for different people; you have to find the mix that’s right for you.

And don’t be afraid to be choosy. An interesting Facebook meme has been spreading that asks, "Do any of us really know everybody on our Facebook friend list?" Users post a status message asking their Facebook friends to "comment on how you met me," then copy the request into their own status. How would your Facebook friends reply? 

Don’t forget that, while marketing is typically designed for a large, shallow pool of relationships, the goal of networking should be to create a small, deep pool. A couple hundred properly connected "friends" can be far more fruitful in creating referral business than several thousand. It’s all in how deep the relationships are built.

Todd Carpenter is the Director of Strategic Investments for the National Association of REALTORS®.