Establishing Relationships in a [Mostly] Virtual World

By Beth Demmon

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world and one that’s inching—let’s face it, sprinting—ever towards a truly global online existence. As it becomes increasingly more common to work with people from all over the world rather than just the coworkers that happen to sit closest to your cubicle, it’s hard to replace the tried-and-true face-to-face experience.

With this evolution away from handshakes, and towards virtual connections, it’s essential that we likewise adapt our communication methods to find alternate ways to interact with one another. How are we to truly “know” those who we’ve never met IRL (in real life)? How can we depend on people who live three time zones away, or inspire loyalty in team members from afar?

While these are newly developing challenges, they’re certainly not impossible to overcome. I’m going to go over some tips and make suggestions on how to improve your communication to maximize results in a variety of situations and channels.

Let’s Get It On With… Freelancers

It’s difficult to find good freelance writers. It’s even more difficult to keep them! With little-to-no communication outside of emails and the occasional phone call, inspiring loyalty with freelancers should be a huge priority for any content manager. However, it’s a two-way street.

Image: WiffleGif

If you expect this phantom person to meet their deadlines, follow instructions, take feedback, and remain a reliable source of high-quality content, you need to cultivate their sense of contribution to a greater good.

This is easier said than done, but here are a few ways to inspire loyalty with freelance contributors:

  • Set them up for success with clear and concise content guidelines at the beginning of each campaign. It’s better to over-prepare them rather than have them guess by trial and error.
  • Be critical but positive. Always start and end your conversations with something that they did well to avoid any potential defensiveness or misunderstanding.
  • Excite them, tantalize them, spark their creativity! Find out what they like to write, what they want to write, and see how their passions can drive your content.
  • Ask for their input and use their ideas when you can. Make their opinions feel welcomed and valued.
  • Show your gratitude. For instance, when we rebranded into ThunderActive, we sent out appreciation packages to some of our long-term freelance writers. Just a simple handwritten note, a personalized flash drive, and 30 second video of thanks really demonstrated how much we value their ongoing contributions. It was a small effort with a big payoff!

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To… Clients

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first – clients pay the bills, so when push comes to shove, you have to kiss the ring. That’s not to say you should automatically say “yes” to every single thing they ask for, but when you suggest something new or that they move in a direction they’re unfamiliar with, it’s your job to make them feel comfortable so they trust that your advice is in their best interest . You’re the expert! It’s up to you to provide them guidance and not just act as a glorified errand boy doing their bidding.

That being said, since most of your discussions with clients will likely take place via email, phone, or even video conferencing, it’s imperative to cultivate a personal relationship with them based on trust and honesty.. Luckily, there’s a bigger chance of having a face-to-face with clients every now and again (even though it’s becoming less common to have an in-person relationship with them on a regular basis), so those IRL opportunities shouldn’t be squandered.

There are a few specific ways to maximize the efficiency and clarity of your communication with clients to ensure you’re both on the same page so they’ll look like this:

Image: Gifsforum

Rather than this:


  • Represent yourself honestly, both as an individual and on behalf of the company. That might sound like some “duh” advice, but as the world’s population shifts to almost wholly digital natives, it’s becoming easier and easier for people to “re-invent” themselves from behind the safety of a computer screen. However, with a person-to-person client meeting always on the table, it’s best to avoid misrepresenting yourself – you’ll always, ALWAYS get caught eventually. Being genuine talks and pretense walks.
  • Reply quickly. At Thunder, we have a 24-hour reply policy. Don’t let requests linger. Prompt communication makes every client feel valued.
  • Be a good listener. Make sure you truly understand where they are and where they want to be so you can best support them. With that in mind, the other half of the coin is…
  • Be a good leader. While you need to make sure you’re listening to their concerns, simply reacting to their limited scope of requests won’t cut it. As interactive marketing experts, you need to look at the bigger picture of what’s possible and make suggestions that guide them forward, not just horizontally.
  • Clarity is king. When you’re dashing off a hundred emails a day, it’s easy to be hasty with your communication. There’s nothing worse than saying one thing, assuming they understood what you meant, and ending up on a totally different wavelength of expectations. Expunge words like “stuff” and “things” from your client vocab. There’s no need to reply to everything with a novel, but one word answers erodes their confidence in you and makes you seem unreliable and rushed while also perpetuating potential confusion.

All of this boils down to one word – respect. Like loyalty, it’s a two-way street, but it’s crucial to maintain that connection based upon mutual esteem in 100% of your conversations, whether it be from behind a screen or across the table.

Summer Lovin’* For… Peers

Of freelancers, clients, and peers, you’re most likely to have more face-to-face interactions with peers on a regular basis. This makes it easier in the traditional sense to get to “know” someone, but in today’s interactive marketing world, there are a TON of ways to connect online that seem almost mandatory to maintain (Google+, anyone?). Still with these tips, it’s easy to spark a true kinship that stands to mutually benefit the pair of you, both personally and professionally.

Image: Awesomely Luvvie

  • Recognize each other’s achievements. If you pump them up online during major milestones, they’ll be that much more stoked to return the favor when you’re in that position.
  • Refer clients. This might seem counterintuitive, but establishing relationships with complementary—and sometimes even competing—services often gleans more work that better fits each other’s areas of expertise, ultimately leading everyone down a road with happy clients, great referrals, and more business!
  • Authoritative should mean positive. Nobody likes a know-it-all, and it’s impossible to actually know it all in such a quickly evolving industry! Maintain a commitment towards learning and sharing your knowledge, and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to build a network of allied peers. (After all, it is who you know that counts).
  • If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it online. As the industry grows, you’re guaranteed to run into the same people again and again at meetups, conferences, and other events. It’s true that what goes around comes around, so unless you’d be willing to Tweet whatever criticisms you have, maybe just zip it in real life as well.
  • Be consistent. Meeting someone that you consider a “Twitter friend” (someone you’ve only interacted with online) can be exhilarating, but also kind of bizarre if their digital self doesn’t quite match up to their IRL personality. This goes back to “representing yourself honestly” to clients, but rings true in every peer circle as well.

There’s nothing wrong with making connections online. Heck, that’s what social media is all about! It’s just important to remember that although lots of social graces are eroding with the advancement of online technology, it’s all of our responsibilities to establish valuable relationships with everyone we come in contact with, whether it be from an email or a talk over coffee.

*Yes, I know the song is really called “Summer Nights”. But it’s close enough and Grease is awesome.

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  • Beth Demmon

    I’m commenting on my own post! So meta.