According to The Pew Research Center, most Americans “networks contain a range of social ties that consist of friends, family, coworkers, and other acquaintances. This includes a handful of very close social ties and a much larger number of weaker ties.” In fact, the average Internet user has 669 social ties.

That’s important research for generating word-of-mouth referrals.

So how does my personal network operate? Maybe not like you think. Whether I’m online or offline, I don’t quibble about whether I’m rewarded for sharing my knowledge, experience and passion. I learn a great deal by engaging with different people, disciplines and cultures. I assume that the people I encounter know more than me and can teach me something. Even the friction of reconciling conflicting perspectives and opinions is invigorating. Having a reciprocal listening style creates connection and social currency and from that comes greater visibility online. That’s how I cultivate a relevant and robust network. My mindset assumes abundance not scarcity.

Worry not that no one knows you, seek to be worth knowing. —Confucius

In many cases, I see more value in my weaker social ties than I do my stronger ties. Why? In sociology. the “strength of weak ties” is a well-established principle that helps us understand how information flows through a social network. Think of interpersonal ties as information-carrying connections between people like you and I. The quality of our “tie” is either strong, weak or absent. Gaining a deeper understanding for how personal network operates enables you to more strategically deploy that network to generate online word-of-mouth referrals. “Indeed, it might not be who or what you know that creates advantage, but rather more simply, who you become by dint of how you hang out—the disadvantaged hang out with folks just like themselves, while the advantaged engage folks of diverse opinion and practice.” That’s a Ronald S. Burt quote. He’s the author of Neighbor Networks: Competitive Advantage Local and Personal and a Professor of Sociology and Strategy at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Social Media in many ways simplifies and accelerates our ability to leverage our weaker social ties. But as Don Pepper notes,

…Most of us aren’t very strategic when it comes to the best way to take advantage of the enormous potential of our own social networks.

Tapping into weaker ties is strategic and needs to be part of any serious business development plan. The best way to understand how to leverage these weak ties is by example:

  1. Job hunting. In a 1973 landmark study called, The Strength of Weak Ties, Mark Granovetter of John Hopkins University, found that the best leads for job opportunities are more likely to come from your more distant acquaintances (weak ties) rather than your close friends (strong ties). Why? As explained by Cornell professors, David Easley and Jon Kleinberg in Networks, Crowds, and Markets, “The closely-knit groups that you belong to, though they are filled with people eager to help, are also filled with people who know roughly the same things that you do.” The point: our distant acquaintances have the ability to expose you to job openings that you and your friends just can’t know about.
  2. Deal flow. Venture capital firms that share details about investment strategy secure access to more opportunities that they would otherwise. The research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that these VCs “more than make up for whatever competitive edge they lose by giving outsiders a peek at what they’re up to.” The point: top-performing VCs are using social media to discuss the “very information they once held close to the vest” in order to leverage weak ties to improve deal flow.
  3. B2B professional services. Think about generating new business in the B2B space or expensive purchases. In The Unexpected Way To Use Your Social Network Strategically, Don Pepper counsels that “if you use a straight-ahead business-development plan, you’ll develop a laundry list of leads and opportunities to be followed up. While this can be useful, the truth is that a great deal of such business comes in via the referral of others. And how can you increase your access to such referrals? You guessed it–by concentrating on your weak ties, rather than on your strong ties. By developing your own network of industry colleagues and blog or Twitter followers, for instance, you get access to their connections with others.” The idea is to arm your weak-tie prospects “with the tools necessary to appeal to their own networks.”
  4. Brown-nosing. Stop the brown-nosing. As Pepper points out, “it’s long been thought that the best way to get ahead is to hitch your wagon to a senior star” but Professor Burt’s book, Neighbor Networks, debunks this myth. Burt suggests that there’s “no advantage at all to having well-connected friends.” According to Burk and Pepper you’re better off developing and maintaining a diverse range of relationships to ensure healthy, stimulating “exposure to diverse ideas and behaviors.”


Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them. —A.A. Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh)

So, find a way to be visible online. Listen to your weaker social ties and follow them. Share your knowledge and expertise to demonstrate that you are “worth knowing.” Seek out diversity. Be open to new concepts, ideas and people. Like Pepper says, the whole point is to arm your “weak-tie prospects with the tools necessary to appeal to their own networks.” How you are strategically using your personal network to grow your business? I love to hear your thoughts and perspectives. Weak-Strong-Absent image courtesy of Wikipedia