Getting Ahead In The Connection Economy

The current business paradigm isn’t about digital – it’s about connection.

Also called the ‘relationship economy’, the ‘experience economy’ and even, by Rolf Jensen, the ‘dream society’, the connection economy should place human interaction at the heart of every business. Success is measured by the ability to create and connect. It is, as Dean van Leeuwen says, “the ability to form meaningful, emotional connections and relationships…and will have as far reaching an impact as the industrial revolution had 200 years ago.”

Seth Godin believes the connection economy is built on the three pillars of co-ordination, trust and permission: co-ordination creates value by bringing people together, trust establishes grounds for a relationship, and permission is to do something as simple as talk to people who will listen. Flowing around these pillars is the exchange of ideas and the premise that ‘All of us are smarter than any of us’.

Underpinning it all are two human traits: generosity and art – because “no one wants to connect to a selfish person who will always take, and art because it is the human act of choosing to connect, choosing to do something for the first time that might not work. When we touch someone generously, we are making art.”

* Warning: Threat of Godinitis *

You should know in advance that this article will be dripping with love for Seth Godin, perhaps the most prominent and persuasive proponent of, as he calls it, the ‘revolution’. He has written extensively about communication, business and human behaviour, most recently in ‘The Icarus Effect’ , which we will reference here. If you are not familiar with Seth – hell, even if you are – watch him speak here.
By the end, you will want a pair of yellow glasses.

Shutting the Factory Gates

The old economic paradigm was built on physical labour and factory processes, which are finite and dehumanising. We have reached the point where we can’t build things any faster or cheaper and where the labour required is non-scaleable. As Seth says, “Just because you are winning a game, it doesn’t mean it’s a good game.”

The connection economy requires emotional labour. This is abundant; it scales; it is rooted in humanity. More importantly, it is genuine – the antidote to consumer cynicism and saturation. “We have branded ourselves to death”, Godin warns. “You can’t build an important new brand, new company, new non-profit, the old way.”

What matters now? Trust, permission, remarkability, leadership, storytelling, humanity, connection, compassion and humility.


Ted Rubin is a great example of how to get ahead in the connection economy. He coined the term ‘Return on Relationships’, a human-centred alternative to ROI. In a compelling conversation with fellow marketer Randy Bowden, he says: “ROI is about dollars and cents; ROR is about sharing, building relationships, and the value accrued (both perceived and real) by building and sharing relationships with the people you do business with. We have forgotten how to relate to people; this is now sharply in focus through digital, social, and the new wave of human-centred marketing.”

Ted’s concern about the connection-obstacles within companies is echoed by our experience of working with companies, where often talking about relationships is alien and uncomfortable – to start with. But we know it works; your relationships have to be at the heart of every strategy, particularly digital.

Where Does Connection Take Place?

Everywhere! As Godin urges, “your job is to find the right tribe, connect and create a culture of being that tribe. There are disconnected people out there in business who are waiting for you to show up.”

In their ROR conversation, Randy Bowden asks Rubin: ‘How does a person determine where those people are? Should you target those places or should you be in all places?”
Ted replies: “It’s a question of bandwith, time and budget, but a big business would be crazy to overlook any of them. Why would you not have the team taking advantage of every platform out there?”

Twitter is the obvious one, but the expert relationship-builders head for LinkedIn – or, as Drake Baer calls it, “a tentacled rolodex, a kraken of a network that is unquestionably powerful; should you learn to harness it … you will become a superconnector”. Drake cites the Alexandra Samuel ‘Favour Test’ of whether to connect with someone: ‘Would you do a favor for this person, or ask a favor of them? If so, make the connection. If not, take a pass.’

7 Ways to Get Ahead. . .

1) Switch from ‘what can I get?’ to ‘what can I give?’
Yes, it’s Seth again. This works both for an individual relating to other individuals and for a brand connecting to an audience. Give stuff away, to people and to customers. Offer, constantly, to be of service. Answer stranger’s questions on Twitter. Offer some free support to a potential sales target. Make an intro on LinkedIn. As Bernadette Jiwa says:

“Attach meaning to everything you do. Make things that people love. Create valuable content that people want to share. Connect people to each other. Change how people feel, not what they search for. Work hard to get your message believed not just noticed.”

2) Embrace Digital
Connection is more than digital; the Internet is a powerful vehicle for interaction and relationship-building, but it does not start and stop there. You need to align your offline / online relationships and activity, but yes, you do need to be thriving on the Godin-termed ‘connection machine’ that is the Internet.

But we strongly urge you to do this yourself. Or at least get a handle on it. Don’t just outsource it, or underestimate its power. As Rubin warns: “All the c-suite have to understand social and get their hands dirty. Who would approve an advert without watching TV? They don’t need to execute it, but they need to get it and wrap their arms around, not the challenge of social, but the opportunity.”

3) Get in Touch with Your Whole Self
Time to get on the couch. Who are you? Who do people think you are? Does anyone see the ‘real’ you?  Why not? Ditch the persona, be yourself and start building real, meaningful relationships. Share your hobbies, your passions, your soapboxes, your photos, your experiences. Reach out and others will connect.

You don’t have to be some 2D boring business person any more. There is value in your extra-curricular activities, value in admitting the things you don’t know (“defect free often means interest free), or sharing the kooky hobby you thought your colleagues would find weird. Guess what – weird is in! Seth: “The connection economy has enabled the weird edges, where people who care find others who care and they all end up caring about something even more than they did before they met. ”

4) Re-Define Your Comfort Zone
You are going to have to get ok with failing, with higher risk, with more creation than repetition and with more sharing than you might at first feel comfortable with. But mainly you are going to leave the comfort zone of an age-old system. From now on, you’re on your own, kid.

“Blaming the system is soothing because it lets you off the hook,” says Seth again. “But when the system is broken, we wonder why you were relying on the system in the first place”.

And find a way to stand out. That’s how to get ahead: standing out, not fitting in; inventing, not duplicating. The new modus operandi rewards originality, remarkability and art.

5) Love the Haters
So many CEOs are put off social media and online connection because they don’t want to give a instant platform to critics.  But wow! What an opportunity! People who hate you are actually trying to talk to you. Engage and potentially persuade. Let other consumers see your honesty. If something is actually wrong, admit it and start a dialogue about it.

6) Honour your staff
Your team are your first tier of connection. Your relationships with them form the model for the rest of your connection. We are talking leadership as the opposite of management (well, Seth is, so we are too).

Ted Rubin highlights a key observation: “Cigarette breaks have gone up in the last 2 years; do you think the number of smokers has gone up? Really? No. People are actually taking advantage of the break to get on their iphone.”

And where are they going? You want them to saying nice things. Get it right and you could have an amazing number of advocates and brand ambassadors, authorities in your vertical and keen to give back what you have put in.

7) Keep It Simple: ‘Fancy a Coffee?’
That’s it; that’s all there is to it. ‘Fancy a coffee?’ Ask people. On Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+. After a few positive mutual interactions, reach out. Do it. What do you have to lose?

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