“You want to spend a WEEK in Paris sleeping on the couch of someone we ‘met’ online?!?!”
I remember that being my incredulous reaction when I was first introduced to Couchsurfing, an online social network in which, basically, people sleep (for free) on the couches of people they “meet” online. The year was 2007 and myself along with many of my college friends were studying abroad in Europe. Three of us decided to convene in France for spring break and spend the week in Paris. We were all on shoestring budgets, so naturally we freaked out when accommodations in Paris were predictably outrageous. As a way to save money, one of my friends proposed using Couchsurfing. With much hesitation, my other friend and I eventually gave in. Free lodging in Paris for a whole week is a dream, and after all, there would be three of us there in case the host ended up being an axe murderer.
So how did it go? Let me just say that I still have a hard time believing others when they say that Parisians are snobs. Our host embodied what the perfect Couchsurfing host was meant to be: warm, accommodating, and incredibly social. He not only put us up on nice beds rather than couches, but he also gave us the best advice from a local’s perspective on where to go, and every night he invited his fellow Parisian friends over to socialize with us. The trip still stands out in my memory as one of the best I’ve ever experienced. Several months later, before I returned stateside, I spent a whole month backpacking through seven countries on my own and I used Couchsurfing in nearly every city for accommodations. That initial positive encounter with Couchsurfing was so influential that I became an early adopter of meeting people online, from Meetup to grow my social circle to Craigslist to find roommates to even eHarmony and Match.com to search for love. I’ve never feared meeting people online; in fact I began welcoming it even more because nearly all of my encounters have been positive in some way.
Why Do People Meet Online?
Today, that concept of meeting people online is hardly considered unusual. From Meetup and Match to Uber and Airbnb, there are tons of practical reasons for online encounters or transactions to translate into real life encounters. But think back to spring of 2007 when Facebook was still limited to college students only and the iPhone hadn’t even been introduced yet. The idea of social networking was still in its infancy, and the idea of having in-person encounters with people you met online was preposterous.
Today there are tons of reasons to meet people online, and it’s become culturally acceptable. Do you know a married couple (or several) who met online? If you’re like most people, you have. Thanks to social acceptance and the technology of companies pioneering social networking sites, most people are accustomed to. This process of meeting people online can be directly applied to how clients choose to contact you (or not) with new work. But the absolute best way to get comfortable meeting people (including potential clients) online is to carefully craft your online presence to attract the right people in the first place.
Why Meeting People Online is Important for Business
Everything from the look and feel of your website to the content you post on it affects the way people perceive your brand. If they end up feeling a sense of connection or trust with what they see on your site, they might linger a bit longer, engage with your content, and even do what you ultimately hope they will do: convert. There are many ways to define conversion, from purchasing a product from your website or contacting you to inquire about a service, or choosing your Airbnb accommodations. No matter how you define conversion or ultimate success when it comes to visitors to your website, it won’t happen unless your website establishes credibility and a sense of trust.
The idea of establishing solid online presence may sound complex, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are 5 simple ways to increase your online credibility and attract the ideal kinds of people that you actually want to meet in person.
1. Show your authenticity in images AND words.
It all comes down to how you present yourself on your profile, whether’s it for the purpose of scoring a new date or a new client. Your image matters in the form of not only your profile photos, but the words and text you use to describe yourself. Add personality by making sure your website or online profile has a clear photo of your face that gives off the appropriate vibe that you want to set. Just make sure users can see your face–this is a huge and often overlooked part in establishing trust online (I’m talking to you, fellow photographers! Your clients care more about seeing your face than what camera you shoot with). When it comes to words, think of a fun fact or short story (or several, like in the case of Scott Dinsmore) about yourself that will be memorable.
One of my favorite bloggers Chris Guillebeau does all of this from the get-go in the giant header on his website: clear photo of his face, four quick and memorable facts about him, and several call to action buttons that clearly indicate what his conversion goals are.
2. Make sure your website design aligns with your brand.
Online credibility extends beyond images and words and applies even to the user experience when it comes to interacting with your website. Is your site concise, modern, consistent and welcoming? Does the design match your brand and appeal to the audience you are seeking? The answers to these questions matter because they all play a role in the first impressions that are made when people visit your website. If the site takes too long to load or the homepage doesn’t immediately captivate their attention, they won’t be staying for long.
If you have the means to experiment with your website design, I challenge you to examine what other websites in your field are doing and look for a way to stand out. This was my goal in the redesign of my photography portfolio that I did in early 2014. Seeking to stand out from other photography websites that are too centered on a gallery of portfolio images, forcing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the images they see, I decided to put myself in the shoes of my ideal clients: business folk who likely know little about photography and therefore would be drawing unpredictable conclusions about the smattering of images I’d be placing before them. As a result, I chose to make my new website layout more business-oriented to appeal to my ideal clients. After implementing my redesign in March 2014, I saw an uptick of 40% new inquiries from those same business-oriented clients that I was targeting all along. All this to say that yes, design and user experience matter, so do place high importance in it when considering your online credibility.
3. Make your contact methods easy and obvious.
If you want people to contact you, make it easy for them to find your contact info. Make a Contact page on your website and add multiple methods of contact. A contact form is great, but don’t forget to put an actual email address there as well as a phone number. Afraid of getting spammed by phone or email? That’s a valid concern, but experiment with putting your full contact info out there first and see how much spam you actually end up getting. In my two years of displaying my phone number and email on my website, I rarely get spammed and instead get at least 50% of my professional inquiries through direct phone calls from the client. Also, using your cell phone number for business purposes can give you a great case for getting a business account and accompanying discount with your cell phone provider. If anything, establish a business-only email through Gmail and business-only phone number through Google Voice. Both methods are free and will actually help you separate business from personal contacts.
Here’s another case for putting your contact information online and treating every inquiry seriously: I’ve learned that as a business, you can offer all of the most modern automated tools and still get piles of emails and calls from users asking super basic questions. As I’ve played out my seemingly mundane tasks of email replying, I’ve learned that 90% of the time, the user is emailing or calling with a basic question for the main reason of validating that there’s a real person on the other said. As mentioned before, it’s important to establish trust, and people have different ways to evaluating how genuine you are. Some will trust what you put on a website, and others would rather hear from your voice or see an email. Bottom line, remember that people have different preferences for communicating and be open to all of them.
4. Let others speak for you.
The heart of many commerce-oriented social networking sites such as Airbnb and even Yelp and Trip Advisor is in the power of customer testimonials.In fact, back when I was an avid Couchsurfing user, the only way to verify if a host was legitimate or not was based on how many positive references he or she received from other guests. What other guests say about a host is incredibly important for garnering more Airbnb bookings, more restaurant visits in the case of Yelp, or more tour bookings in the case of Trip Advisor. A specific example exists in the form of a business I help run in Belize. Our high number of online bookings is fueled mainly by positive word-of-mouth reviews and incredible Trip Advisor references. Most of the online bookings we receive exclusively credit our Trip Advisor reputation as the main inspiration for the trip.
Even if your business isn’t appropriate for being listed on a site like Trip Advisor, Yelp, or Airbnb, the power of positive customer testimonials and referrals is still largely influential. Include a snippet of a positive comment from a satisfied customer and perhaps credit their brand or business that they represent. It may seem minor, but the psychological influence of user testimonials is still incredibly powerful. Take Four Hour Work Week guru Tim Ferriss for example. His main homepage includes photo clearly showing who he is as well as lots of testimonials from the likes of Amazon, The New York Times, and Wired. His call-to-actions are also front and center and easy to find, so you know exactly what he wants each website visitor to ultimately do.
5. Be active online.
We all know that having a social media profile is important, but these days it’s also important to properly and consistently use social networking to your advantage. Choosing which platforms to be on is a strategy in itself. I have presences on over 12 different social networking sites and I employ different strategies on each one. I use Facebook to stay in touch with people I’ve met in person and reminding them of the work I do to increase the odds of a “word of mouth” or personal reference. I use Twitter and LinkedIn for finding and connecting with other professionals or those who I would like to know. And I use this blog to publish my viewpoints that help reinforce my online credibility as well as connect with other freelancers and self employed individuals around the world.
Regardless of which networks you choose to be a part of, do your homework and understand how to best use the site and constantly check your analytics to see who your followers are. This is a huge determining factor in what kind of media you post on that network.
Do you have your own advice or story about meeting people online and how to improve those experiences? Let me know in the comments below!