How to leverage your social capital

06 Aug

handshakeHow to leverage your social capital, eh? What a lot of jargon! I thought you didn’t like jargon, Liz? – Well, I don’t, and that’s why I’m going to take a few minutes to explain what this little chunk of jargon means.

Social capital is a fancy term for the people you know and, to be blunt, the favours they owe you. You build it up through networking, doing things for other people, being a linking person, an information provider, a helpful person. You build it through knowing people, through having worked with people, through keeping in touch with people. Then, when you need it, something like karma springs into action, and the work you’ve put in comes back to you in bucketloads.

Now I’m sounding cynical as well as jargon-filled! Goodness me! Let’s break it down with some heavily disguised but based-on-reality examples, to show you that leveraging your social capital isn’t really the cynical and shallow procedure you might imagine, but a new way for an old process that is made easier to build and use through social media and our networked society.

Social capital gets leveraged, everyone goes away happy

Here are some examples of people leveraging their social capital to gain freelance jobs and repeat clients. Note that in NONE of these cases does Person A directly ask for something. Instead, the connections they’ve built up do it all for them.

Example 1: Person A, Bob, ‘meets’ Person B, John, online via a mutual interest group that’s applicable to the industry they’re both in. Bob is about to go full-time with his freelance career but doesn’t have many clients. John is a full-time freelancer of a few more years’ experience. He’s looking for people to recommend enquirers on to when he can’t fit them in. He’s also keen to get some holiday cover set up so he can go and play golf without worrying about his graphic design clients. They make friends and build trust – they even start to meet up to play golf together. When John gets yet another enquiry about leaflet design, it’s easy for him to recommend Bob. Bob worries sometimes that all of his jobs come through John’s recommendations, but soon he has his own string of client referrals because he does a good job. And when Bob goes on holiday, he passes John a big project that he hasn’t got time for – from a client originally recommended by John!

Who benefits: both of them. Bob gets new clients and builds his customer base. John has people he can refer clients on to and that all-important holiday cover.

Bonus social capital leverage: When Bob, now nice and busy himself, finds out that a friend he’s made at a networking event is looking for clients, not only can he recommend his own overflow to Tony, but he can advise John to, as well!

Example 2: Person A, Millie, used to work with Jeremy before they both left and went their separate ways. But they’ve kept in touch via Facebook and chat online every month or so. Jeremy moves between jobs and continents, so knows lots of people. When he hears from Simon, an ex-colleague in Australia that they’re looking for someone with the skillset Millie possesses, and that they don’t need someone on the spot, Jeremy puts Millie in touch with Simon, and they work on the project together.

Who benefits: both of them. Millie gets a job out of it, and Jeremy maintains contact with an ex-colleague and does them a favour, which could well be repaid in the future.

Example 3: Person A, Tim, meets person B, Shona, at a local networking event. They’re not in the same line of work at all, but they have a good chat and get on well. They say hello at a few other monthly events. One day, Tim is contacted by Sean, who wants to use him for a major new contract; he’s been recommended by Shona, even though she has no direct experience of his work (of course, Sean has checked out Tim’s website and references before contacting him). Not only does Tim get the job, but Sean recommends him on his website and to other clients of his.

Who benefits: In this case, it looks like it’s mainly Tim, however, he is so grateful to Shona that he goes out of his way to retweet and share messages Shona sends out on social media, and to introduce her to useful people at the networking events they attend.

How to build social capital

So, how do you build this social capital? Note that it’s not social MEDIA capital, although social media makes it easier to do. But you can build social capital through networking and more old-fashioned face-to-face contact, too. In both Examples 2 and 3, the initial contact was in person, and social media only comes into play to make the contacts between the people who want the work doing and lucky old Person A.

Building social capital shouldn’t be a cynical process, but a natural one that involves making a bit of effort. Ways you can increase your social capital include:

  • Getting out there – the more people you meet, the more people can help you
  • Telling people what you’re looking for – whether it’s announcing to your Facebook friends that your violin-making business is looking for commissions or joining a networking group and explaining what services or products you’re promoting
  • Making yourself memorable – whether you’re the “good hair lady” (true example) or the person who always brings cakes to the meetup, make yourself memorable in a good way
  • Making yourself easy to explain – this comes down to your elevator pitch. Do people know you as “the man who makes violins on commission” or “that music chap”? The more precise your description, the more likely you are to have people sent your way who you can actually work with
  • Being gracious – if someone is introduced to you who you can’t help (or with whom you’re not interested in working), see if you can recommend them on, or have a chat anyway. You need to leave a positive impression on everyone you meet if you possibly can
  • Do things for other people – this should go without saying, but I’m going to say it. More below on this one

It’s cynical to say that someone “owes you one”, and it can be far more complex than that, but it can’t be ignored: the more you help other people, the more they will help you in return. How can you do things for other people?

  • If they’re in the same business as you, see if you can pass overflow work to them
  • If they’re in a closely related business to you, mention them to your clients as someone who can help them – e.g. the violin maker might know a musicians’ agent who they can recommend to their clients
  • If they’re in a fairly different business to you, bear them in mind and mention them – e.g. the violin maker might be chatting to a musician and mention that he knows an event organiser who’s looking for entertainment for a summer party
  • If they’re in a completely different business to you, still bear them in mind and suggest them – e.g. the violin maker is chatting to a musician whose wife needs a web page to be designed
  • You could create a Links page on your website with links to known and trusted contacts in your field and others
  • You could put a poster for their event in your shop window or volunteer at an event they run
  • You could introduce a friend with a different kind of business to one of the networking events you go to
  • You could share tweets and Facebook posts by your contacts with your audience (you should be doing this anyway)
  • You could cross-guest-post on each other’s blogs

 What has worked for you?

Knowing and trusting people + getting out and about and meeting them face to face or online x helping people out yourself = increased social capital

Have you got good examples of your contacts creating opportunities for you with third parties? I’d love to hear about your successes and how they came about …

Further reading on this blog:

Reciprocity and social media

Networking and social media marketing

Networking for newbies

If you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, please comment below or use the sharing buttons to share it with your network. If you’re considering setting up a new business or have recently done so, why not take a look at my books, all available now, in print and e-book formats, from a variety of sources.


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Posted by on August 6, 2014 in Business, Social media


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