In the days of dial-up Internet, it made sense to refer to people you met somewhere on the web as “online friends.” But today, with smartphones and the constant connection through texting, messaging apps, and social media, your online friends are often your real friends, too.
The Internet has changed our relationship to our friends and opened doors for making new friends. It's become common for people to form friendships through apps and, whether you love them or hate them, dating app usage is at an all-time high. That may be because relationships that begin online can result in stronger, faster connections because they allow people to communicate in real time. But how do online relationships compare with meeting people the old-fashioned way? And what does this mean in today’s global business landscape, where we meet in person less frequently?
Online vs. IRL
Researchers at New York University studied whether the tendency for people to share more of themselves online results in forming closer relationships than those who met by chance, face-to-face. According to the study, “the relative anonymity” of online interactions can allow for greater self-disclosure, in part due to the lack of other things that may prevent two people from getting to know each other, like physical appearance or social anxiety, and fears of disapproval and rejection.
The study explains: “In this way, self-disclosures with on-line acquaintances are similar to the ‘strangers on a train’ phenomenon, in which people sometimes share quite intimate information with their anonymous seatmates.”
When it comes to dating and other social apps, relationships formed online are often specific to particular interests, allowing people bond over a commonality without first having to work to discover a shared interest. On dating apps, for example, users can share personal details and determine whether there’s any commonality in a potential match before ever bothering to chat. Of course, a match eventually has to translate into real-life chemistry, but many online relationships can be maintained online, from anywhere you can settle in with a coffee and Wi-Fi access.
When it comes to dating and other social apps, relationships formed online are often specific to particular interests, allowing people bond over a commonality without first having to work to discover a shared interest.
In business, we’re all strangers on a train
Today there are entire companies full of employees working remotely that have to work together to collaborate, solve problems, and maintain positive working relationships. This is often accomplished through video conferencing and collaboration tools like Slack. So as people become more comfortable forming personal relationships online, it only makes sense that bonding over online communication apps and tools has become more common in the workplace, too. While it’s nice to meet in person, or to put a face with a name, it’s not necessary for building strong relationships with colleagues and customers.
There are several ways that companies can take the efficiency of an online relationship and use it to build closer customer connections—as well as several reasons why companies should. Consider that social messaging apps are now so commonplace that customers already feel comfortable using them to communicate. Add to that, the real-time communication removes a barrier for customers and opens up opportunities for a more natural, conversational connection—often bias-free and without the anxiety that a phone call might generate.
For example, here at BubbleIQ, we decided to invite our customers to use Slack to ask support questions and found that customer relationships that were formed or deepened over Slack were more friendly and chattier than conversations through either a formal email or phone call. This led us to develop our first product, which integrates Slack conversations with customer support tickets in Zendesk, allowing for data to move seamlessly between two systems that people already use and love. From our first Slack support customers, we learned firsthand how close working relationships could develop—and we’ve never lost a customer that’s joined us in that channel.
From our first Slack support customers, we learned firsthand how close working relationships could develop—and we’ve never lost a customer that’s joined us in that channel.
Similar to social and dating apps, online notifications feed into and act as a reward loop—meaning that checking them feels satisfying, which also encourages people to pay attention any time one pops up. A support team that can provide a comfortable way to chat, paired with the ability to grab a customer’s attention via a notification, has the opportunity to connect more often, and more closely, than ever before. Customers feel that you’re working together toward a solution.
Online relationships work best when they mirror physical ones
The study from New York University made a key distinction: online interactions can bring people closer together, faster, when they encourage people to reveal their “true” selves. Some people and customers are better able to disclose “the real me” in person, and it’s important to have the opportunity to do so. It also means that authenticity is vital in building any lasting online relationship.
For example, when Jason Lemkin ran EchoSign, he made an effort to visit customers in person and, as a result, never lost one. He explains that customers, once they’ve met you, aren’t buying the product, but are buying into “your vision, your strategy, and your commitment” to your product. Beyond the product, that human connection is what helps customers buy into your promise to deliver.
That technology allows us to form real, close relationships online means that we can reap the benefits without necessarily having to visit individual customers, as powerful as that is. Instead, we can take our customer support teams from being faceless, personality-free entities on the other side of an email and allow them to be themselves, in a dynamic shared space, ready to help solve a problem. And maybe to send a fun emoji or GIF. We’re all in this together, and as the generations who've grown up with these messaging apps age, they’ll expect us all to present and ready to engage online.
Fletcher Richman is co-founder and CEO of BubbleIQ, which helps growing customer support teams ensure tickets get solved quickly by connecting the tools they use every day.