Leveraging your social networking friends requires taking a larger risk than friending someone. If you've been on any of the social networks for any amount of time, you probably have accumulated a number of "friends" who you don't actually know. I'm not talking about people who you know online or know something about -- I mean friends you really know nothing about. You just got a friend request and accepted, and thought no more about it.
It's nice to have non-friend friends, but what is the use (other than to show off how many friends you have)? If you look at the rockstar social networking guys, you see they have various ways to encourage their thousands of "friends" (or "fans") to correspond with them. They ask questions, encourage poking, create causes and groups, and Chris Brogan (http://www.chrisbrogan.com/) even encourages people to just pick up the phone and call.
But for people like me, who aren't rockstars, we need to actually initiate contact a lot of the time, and in fact, it isn't necessarily a lot easier than initiating contact in the real world. To really leverage these contacts takes two elements: time and guts.
Guts first. I was sitting with a "friend" I'd met through traditional networking (someone introduced us at an event) and she was saying how she hated traditional networking because wherever she went, she discovered she was the weirdest person in the room. I didn't know what to say, because the person was successful, good-looking, considerate, a good conversationalist, and just basically, well, not weird. Either she went to events with really boring people, or it was just her perception.
All of us have that perception, in fact, that we are either weird, shy, obnoxious.... something that is going to make us bad at networking (either physical or non). For all of you people who think there is something "wrong with you" (that is 100% of us), please keep in mind this important fact. Statistically speaking, the more unusual you are, the higher the likelihood that you will say something interesting and memorable in a conversation. Hopefully it won't be something embarrassing, but frankly, I'd rather say something embarrassing (as long as it isn't offensive or hurtful) and be remembered, than to be forgotten. Another important statistic is that of people who have ever said anything, 100% have said the wrong thing at one time or another.
Back to the topic, so what happens when you try to actually make physical or verbal contact with one of your friends? I've been researching this by inviting some of my virtual friends for coffee, which in my country, is the default real world activity for a non-romantic social interaction.
The results have been mixed. So far, about a quarter of the people have accepted my invitation, which is actually a great result. I mean, I have met people in my industry, chatted socially with some new people who might become real friends, gotten voters for my party, etc.
On the other hand, some of the responses have been a bit pathetic. One of my non-friend friends I ran into at a physical event, and the friend recognized me from the social network we belonged to. We exchanged cards, and friended on all the other networks. This person had a very large number of "friends" and was someone in my industry, so I dropped a note saying that we had a lot in common, and we should have coffee. I can't say I was turned down, because the person didn't even grace me with a response. Another non-friend friend said they didn't want to speak by phone because he wasn't accustomed to meeting people he didn't know. I don't know about you, but with the exception of my mother, everyone I know used to be someone I didn't know.
So what do you think? What is the correct etiquette when someone you have friended, or who has friended you, wants to speak physically or meet? Do you initiate these contacts? What have you done when people initiate contact with you? Is it creepy or does it sound like a sales pitch when you get a real request from a non-friend friend? Or am I specifically just creepy or phony sounding?