Several years ago, Scott Allen set out to become “the guy who wrote the book on networking online,” and he’s done exactly that. Actually, he’s one of two guys who wrote the book, the other being coauthor David Teten, whom Scott never met face to face until after they’d finished their manuscript. (These guys are serious about practicing what they preach: David and his wife met through an online dating service.) The Virtual Handshake has gotten rave reviews and become the de facto guide to networking virtually—according to one reviewer, “This is the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for the Internet.” Scott serves as “Entrepreneurs Guide” for About.com, a New York Times subsidiary and one of the top ten web sites worldwide (37 million readers), and coauthors (with Teten) a regular column for FastCompany.com. (At a companion site to the book, www.thevirtualhandshake.com, the two also offer valuable tips and insights.) He has been quoted as “the man who knows” by ABCNews.com, The Washington Post and a host (no pun) of others. And no surprise here: Scott is also a regular reader of Networking Times. “I think what you guys are doing is great,” he says. “I’ve had quite a few friends who were quite involved in network marketing over the years.” And while seasoned networkers are often suspicious of seasoned network marketers, adds Scott, both worlds have a good deal they can learn from each other. — JDM


With your expertise around networking, do you get asked about network marketing a lot?

All the time. There are so many network marketers who want to get involved in the social networking area.

In our monthly column for FastCompany-.com, David and I wrote an article called “Seven Lessons that Everybody Can Learn from Network Marketing.” Network marketing has so obviously been such a successful business model, there’s obviously a good deal here that mainstream networkers can learn.


And vice versa?


True—there’s also a lot of resistance and negative reaction among those within social networking to having a lot of network marketers involved.

I wrote an article on About.com called “The Real Problem with Network Marketing.” Interestingly, it was very well received by both network marketing proponents and critics!


What was the basic premise of the piece?


The very thing that makes network marketing attractive is also its downfall—the low barrier to participation. You get a lot of people involved who’ve had no training in sales, marketing or business development.

Of course, there’s great training available through magazines like yours and the various trainers in the profession. But for the most part, network marketers tend to rely on their immediate upline—which is too often a matter of the blind leading the blind.

You’ve got to learn business skills, and not just the “network marketing business.” Good selling is good selling, good marketing is good marketing, good networking is good networking.


How did you become interested in “social software”?


I have been in the tech industry all my career, but I’ve also always been a people person. I wrote a lead referral system for IBM that helps phone agents connect people with a need to IBM business partners who can supply it—even as a developer, I was always working on models of how human beings can connect with other human beings based upon a need.

I was once based in Houston, working for a Silicon Valley company, and had to hire a team of fourteen people from all over North America. I hired most of them sight unseen—in fact, about half of them were hired without ever meeting anyone from my company face to face.


So you were already very comfortable working virtually.


Completely—we were totally dependent on discussion forums and instant messaging. At my last company, we did a high-seven-figure corporate merger with another company based on a conversation I had on a Yahoo! group!

In mid-2002 I started thinking, “What’s the next big thing?”

I knew I didn’t just want to be in business—I wanted to change the world. And I hate being in a highly commoditized market. I didn’t want to be one of a zillion guys all doing the same thing. I wanted to be part of creating something major, something significant.

A few networking sites like Ryze.com and Ecademy were just becoming known; blogging was just coming onto the radar. I could see that online communication wasn’t just going to be a major trend—it was going to fundamentally change critical business processes over the next three to five years. We were going to make a dramatic shift toward relying on these totally virtual relationships.


So that instead of telephone and face-to-face being the “real” communication and virtual being optional, that would flip on its head?


Yes. Of course, not in every type of business. The one won’t completely replace the other—but it will to a point. It’s silly to be in denial about that.


What’s the biggest challenge in this shift? Our basic resistance to change?


From the moment of birth, the average businessperson has spent 200,000 to 300,000 hours interacting with people face to face—but probably less than 4,000 hours interacting with people via email and other forms of online communication.

If you’ve spent 100 times more time doing one thing than another thing, of course you’re going to be better at it. But it’s not an inherent limitation of the medium.

We went through an exhaustive amount of research and found that online interaction is not inherently inferior—it’s just different.


For example?


It’s asynchronous: we don’t have to speak in real-time. You can email at two in the morning and I can answer at two in the afternoon.

And because of the tremendous capacity to carbon-copy, blog and participate in discussion forums, I can write about something and make it available to other people to learn about me. You’ll learn more about me, how I think and my outlook on the world, in 15 minutes of reading my blog than you ever would in the typical first 15 minutes of conversational small talk that happens at a typical networking event.


What about the fact that you don’t have all those non-verbal cues?


The truth is, most of us aren’t nearly as adept at reading these cues accurately as we think we are! Or at generating them, either.

That limitation turns out to be a strength. Whenever you limit one avenue of sensory input, you more fully explore others. You know how much more intense music can be when you listen to it with your eyes closed?

This is what happens when you start communicating online. You limit the visual and auditory cues—and therefore aren’t distracted by them. You have a more efficient conversation—which means you can go deep faster.


Do you get a lot of people saying, “Yeah, but I’m not really good at writing”?


Sure, and I say, “Don’t let that stop you! Do something about it!”

When people say, “I can’t sell,” the answer is, learn! Go take a sales course. Read a book about sales. Practice.

We need to learn how to write. The level of writing skill in this country is frightening. But this is an essential skill—and the people who write better will do better in this new environment, just as the people who are personable and have a good conversational style do better in the face-to-face world.


The more things change, the more they stay the same! We’re talking about a skill that would have been a given 150 years ago.


Exactly! In our book we talk about a group in Birmingham, England in the late 1700s and early 1800s, called the Lunar Society. They met once every four weeks by the full moon, so that when they stayed up till three or four in the morning when all the gas lamps were out, they could still see their way home.

The Lunar Society was made up of all these business people and scientists who got together ostensibly to talk about the practical application of science to business and industry. But of course, as is inevitable when you get all these brilliant minds together, they ended up talking about politics and education and philosophy and everything else. When guests of honor came in from out of town, like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, they would come visit and get engaged, too.

Even though they met only once a month, they all corresponded like crazy. As they moved about, they continued their correspondence. There are huge collections of their letters criss-crossing the globe.

I call it “the nineteenth-century Internet.”

This is the kind of tradition we’re building on. So what we’re doing is not entirely new. Everything old is new again!


How did the book itself come about?


I started working on the idea with Donna Fisher [author of Power Networking and Professional Networking for Dummies—Ed.]. We were in various discussion forums, telling people we were looking for best practices, success stories and anecdotes—and Dave Teten answered. He said, “Hey, I’m doing a book about networking and a substantial part of it is about online networking.” We started talking (online, of course!) and soon agreed that it made more sense to partner than to write competing books.

By then Donna was working on some other projects, so David and I decided to proceed, and to focus on virtual networking rather than on networking in general. We got a contract with Amacom (American Management Association) and wrote the book.


And you and David never met face to face?


The first time David and I ever met in person was two weeks after we had turned in our completed manuscript in first draft to the publisher. In the course of researching and writing the book, we exchanged several hundred phone calls and over 8,000 emails.


You two really did a thorough job, didn’t you? The book is crammed with citations and sources.


We did. We knew that we could put together a book based simply on our own ideas and observations, with no real research, in six months. Or, we could do what they call a “thought leadership” book. We chose the latter course.

There are a few other people coming out with good ebooks on this subject, but almost all are based on the authors’ own immediate experience. Ours is based on three years of exhaustive research and survey of all the latest academic research on virtual interaction. We worked our butts off.


And the book became the de facto word on the subject.


It did. We got fantastic reviews—Harvard Business School, Kirkus, Business Week and so forth. And we just got our publisher to do something very innovative for a major publisher: we’re offering the entire ebook as a free download from our site, www.thevirtualhandshake.com.


I’m struck by how practical and hands-on the content is. For a lot of people, the challenge feels technical; this stuff just seems complicated.


Absolutely. We realized there are a lot of essential skills people just don’t have, things some of us take for granted.

For example, setting up an email rule. It amazes me when I see people in discussion groups saying, “Oh my God, I’m getting too much email!” There’s no such thing!

I get between 500 and 1000 messages a day. That’s not too much email—you just need to automate your email program with email rules that will process and sort it all for you.

I have about four email rules and maybe 20 folders. It’s a simple system—but it takes the stuff that’s non-critical out of my immediate view.

Once or twice a day, I scan through all the subject lines. And it takes no longer to delete 20 messages than it does to delete one. You just click on the first, shift-click on another, hit delete and everything in between is gone. If the subject line doesn’t grab you, don’t read it!


What are you looking for in online networking?


You’re looking for opportunities for conversations about whatever it is that are your hot points, where you can go and add value. You don’t jump in and say, “Oooh, our product does that!” You can add it as a tagline: “By the way, I rep a product that addresses this.” Put it in your sig line. But first and foremost, add value. Position yourself as an expert, not as a salesperson.


Is this theme of “adding value” something inherent to online networking?


It’s there, but it’s not new. It’s the main theme of Bob Burg’s book, Endless Referrals. Ivan Misner has said it for years: “Givers gain.” Everyone in networking knows this.

Online is just a different way of approaching the same core activity.


What do network marketers most need to learn about networking?


The relationship is more valuable than the transaction.

People need to understand that the lifetime value of a relationship—even with someone who never buys from you, maybe someone you never even tell about your opportunity—the lifetime of the relationship itself will be worth more to you by orders of magnitude than any one individual sale itself.


Sometimes you have both the relationship and the sale…


Right, but people often try to jump in too fast.

A guy in a discussion forum recently described how he was trying to meet people and build a referral business, but it wasn’t working. The email he was sending out was very nice: he would introduce himself and say, “I want to learn more about your business so I can refer business to you.”

He thought he was being selfless. But this was his first contact. How can you refer business to me when we don’t even know each other?


And people weren’t born yesterday.


Right: they understand what’s implicit. If you’re saying you want to refer business to me, you’re also expecting me to refer business to you.


He was trying to do too much too fast.


Exactly. The initial conversation, and we’re already talking about referring business.

One of the most important tips of networking is, know where you are. Understand the context. You have to look around and see, what are the posting rules, what’s the general feel of the conversation.

You don’t walk into Toastmasters, get up to introduce yourself and give your thirty-second business pitch. It’s not appropriate. The same thing is true online. You’ve got to know your context and be appropriate to that context.

The top network marketers know that the three-foot rule is not what you do. If there is a three-foot rule, it’s this: Anybody within three feet of you is worth getting to know a little better.


That’s golden!


And know that you’re not going to develop a deep relationship with every single person you meet. There’s value to finding some focus and engaging in certain types of community.

The temptation is to turn everyone into a prospect. But instead, you want to define who your ideal customer is and go meet those people.


When do you tell someone about your opportunity?


When you have permission.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be explicit permission. Ideally it will be, if you’ve done it right—they’ll say, “You know, tell me a little more about that thing you’re doing.” It doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be a rep, but they want to know about what you’re doing, because they care about you and what you do, and they’re interested in being a part of your life.


Because you’ve honored the context of the relationship and not forced it on them.


Exactly. But they may simply give you implicit permission. They might tell you about something, like not having enough energy or not having enough income, and that in itself gives you permission.

But whether it’s implicit or explicit, the right time to talk about something is when you have permission, and never before.


So when people say networking is a “numbers game”…?


It’s not entirely true. There’s a certain minimum depth of relationship that has to be there for people to be willing to act on your behalf. Simple name recognition isn’t enough. You have to build a strong enough relationship that you have mindshare with people, so that when they think about candles, or wine-tasting, or nutrition, or whatever it is you do, they think about you.

You need to have enough consistent presence and relationship with them that this will take place. It’s not just simply numbers and pure exposure, it’s a matter of being present and developing that minimum of interaction.

There’s a trade-off between the strength and the sheer number of relationships. It’s a delicate balance—but if you want stronger relationships, you need to be willing to devote more time to them. And strong relationships is ultimately the bottom line of networking.



www.networkingtimes.com/link/thevirtualhandshake