Online platforms have been good to me in regards to networking. I am not where I want to be in my career yet, but I get the impression that when I do get there, it will have a lot to do with the relationships I built starting online, as opposed to the ones in person.
Such platforms, despite their pitfalls are valuable to me because they eliminate all the bullshit. (And no matter what anybody tells you, 80% of traditional networking is nothing but bullshitting, end of story.) If I see a blog post I like, I leave a comment on it. It's self contained and obvious what the blog is about, and it is clear that the author is expecting people to approach them about it. They respond to my wonderfully specific initial contact, and in many cases, instant new network connections result. I can right away start opening up my highly inquisitive mind and ask all sort of questions about what they do, who they are, how they arrived at their opinion. Right to Final Jeopardy without the pointless cocktail party small talk for warm up.
But when it comes to learning about specific topics and discussing the nature of one's field, there are certain types that are very difficult for me to engage online or offline. One such group that often puts up barriers to my preferred method of exploring a new relationship are consultants. To be more specific, consultants in such categories as social media, public relations, marketing, and other mostly intangible fields.
What follows is a professional, not a personal assessment. It has nothing to do with how wonderful a person you may be if you are a consultant. But I do continue to hit a snag professionally whenever I try to get to know one. Try to network with them, as it were.
The difficulty I have with establishing a relationship with these people is that one can't really explore the nature of their work, aside from the basics. They can talk about previous accomplishments, and perhaps show me a portfolio of their work which I suppose is sort of okay. It tends to get boring after a while, though, as I like to talk to people not resumes. But many consultants passed a certain point won't discuss ideas or brainstorm with you because they "don't work for free." Given the nature of their work this barricade is often thrown up even in social situations that would otherwise be unconnected with career advancement. It is an understandable but very unfortunate defense mechanism that consultants throw up, which tends to discourage people like me.
And therein lies the problem with networking, or sometimes even socializing with consultants. Unlike other occupations, they have to place a limit on how many questions they can answer about what they do. What is worse, they have to place a serious cap on answering questions pertaining to what they would do in any given situation. And that type of conversational limitation can really dump cool water on a developing idea exchange with me, because I love asking people, "if this happened, how would you handle it in your position?"
Not to mention it tends to sound the slightest bit smug when somebody says, "I can't offer anymore on that unless you pay me," during a conversation. Fair as it may be to one's personal bottom line, taking this position is going to sound unfriendly and rude to a lot of people.
I'll illustrate my frustrations.
Let's say I encounter a nature photographer on Twitter. I can ask her what sort of camera she uses. The type of photos she takes. She can actually show me some of her pictures. I can ask her, without feeling under threat of taking food out of her mouth, "I always have a hard time taking pictures of moving objects, what shutter speed do you suggest?" Matters of her art, her science skills, how she picks subjects, what she would do in that tasty hypothetical situation I mentioned. The answers to these questions often determine how interested I am in establishing a relationship. And unless she has other reasons, she is perfectly at liberty to answer all of them. Because she is paid to take photographs, not to talk about photography. Ergo, by talking about what she does, and what she can do, she isn't robbing herself. She and I can feel free to brainstorm about taking pictures. (And if she reciprocates, I can brainstorm with her about, say, writing a novel.)
Ask that same set of questions to an internet marketing consultant. The conversation would be much shorter. Because they are paid to brainstorm. They make money by assessing a situation and coming up with solutions. The exploration of photography I had with the photographer would be something for which I would have to be charged by the hour with the marketing consultant. That is because the exploration of the ideas is the very thing for which the consultant gets paid. And whether I opt to pay the consultant for her hour's worth of suggestions and ideas, or if I opt to bid them good day and discontinue the conversation, I'm bound to feel let down by the whole experience.
"You'd never ask your photography friend to take pictures for your magazine for free would you? So why the hell should I as a consultant offer my services for free? Answer me that, Mr. XYZ Guy."
Okay, here is your answer. No, I wouldn't ask a photographer to take pictures for free. And I wouldn't expect a consultant to work for free either. The issue isn't the legitimacy of charging people. I could charge people for the right to shake my hand. There is nothing stopping me. But it would certainly put a damper on my social life.
The difference between the photographer and the consultant is I am free to explore the expertise of the photographer through the most basic of human functions; by speaking to them. And by being directly exposed to the artistry, the acumen, the aspirations and advice of the photographer, even if I don't have a prayer of matching her in skill and accomplishment, I am improved. Inspired. With a consultant, I am warned I may be on the clock. Makes it tricky.
Look, many consultants do great work. Like any profession, kind, generous, helpful, brilliant people consult for a living. And they naturally have passions outside of their chosen field. People are more than what they do for a living. God knows I shout that truth every chance I get. But in professional as opposed to the personal arena, where our toehold is often established through conversation about our contributions and why we make them, I think consultants are at a bit of a disadvantage. They are when it comes tome, anyway.
Maybe if they eased up somewhat on what they will and won't talk about off of the clock. In order to network effectively they may have to actually give away some of their products and services for free during the course of regular conversation. After all, to an extent even the photographer does so. I may not own the photo, but once I see it, it's in my mind and in my heart wherever I go. If photographers attempted to charge for every time that happened, they'd be out of business.