How to create trust with your online presence

How can online relationships fuel and shape how we interact with our colleagues in the real world? You know, that environment that exists outside our desktops?

Our newspapers and websites are filled with stories about how the nature of friendship has become devalued as we go about connecting on MyLinkFaceSpace et al. But what few have covered is how the online world creates new kinds of communities, and builds trusted relationships that carry on in the real world of face-to-face interaction. This post is how small businesses can enhance their online reputations to build trust in their brands.

Oddly, where I started thinking about this was reading a book from a couple who I have worked with in the past. Now, this isn’t your typical business book with about 10 pages of content and the rest is mostly common sense. Instead, it is a very practical hands-on book on geocaching.

Geocaching? You mean that hobby where people hide stuff in public places and then use their GPS to try to find them? Let me explain. The book, which is called The Joy of Geocaching by Paul and Dana Gillin, talks about what you need to get started, and has some great stories of very involved cachers that the couple met over the course of doing their research. This is where the lessons about online relationships come into play.

There is one story of a woman who traveled to Toronto on a business trip with several colleagues. She left them at the airport, and was picked up by a stranger – with the only thing in common being that both were cachers. How many of us would climb into a car in another country with nothing more than exchanging a few emails? That involves a certain level of trust and comfort that just doesn’t happen in the real world.

Other examples are people that use the Meetup.com site to find people of similar circumstances. And of course there are the online dating sites, too. Crowdsourcing is another. I am sure you could think of other examples.

This use of online connections to prime the pump for a face-to-face meeting happens more and more frequently because we are doing more than just sending emails, or friend requests, or linking to others via online sites. We are sharing a common bond, a series of interests. We are building an authoritative source of content, context and identity. And along the way, we start shaping these micro-communities one person at a time.

Yes, there are people who pride themselves on having thousands of “friends” or who can connect with celebs and CEOs alike. But that isn’t what today’s Internets are all about.

Yes, it takes a village. But increasingly, our villages are formed online and with hyper-specific interests – not just because we share a common street block or elementary school classroom of our children. This is nothing new. The early bulletin board systems were great at this. But what is new is the potency of these relationships, and how quickly they can come to fruition.

Sure, I belong to lots of different communities, some based here in St. Louis, some that include people from all over the world. So take a moment to think about the online communities that you are a member, or should be a member. And see if you can start building some trust.

And if you want to learn about geocaching, go get a copy of the Gillins’ book. It is a good read, even if you never leave the comfort of your home.