The Strength Of Weak Ties

Why your distant acquaintances matter (at least) as much as your close friends.

The biggest challenge indie consultants face is generating new clients. There are many ways to approach this problem, but something I advocate to every consultant - without exception - is to focus on building, nurturing, and leveraging their personal network.

Usually, the biggest argument supporting this recommendation is related to trust. Many consultants see the ideal engagement as a strategic (with high fees) and long-term (or retainer) collaboration. It's difficult to sell this kind of service to cold leads, or someone who does not see you as competent, reliable, and honest.

While the importance of a strong network is clear, in this post I want to share a rather counterintuitive idea: Most of the opportunities that come to you via referrals pass through weak ties. They are where the magic is.

The Strength Of Ties

The original idea behind the strength of weak ties is in this 1973 paper from Mark Granovetter. It's an amazing read that analysis the micro-level interactions and macro-level patterns that happen in social groups.

To classify the strength of a tie between two people, Mark uses the following criteria:

  • The amount of time they spend together;
  • The emotional intensity of their connection;
  • The intimacy level (mutual confiding);
  • The reciprocity in their relationship.

The ties discussed in the paper are assumed to be positive and symmetric to avoid additional complexity. Based on these criteria, we can classify the ties between any two people as strong, weak, or absent.

The stronger your tie with any person, the more common contacts you both will have. There are several reasons for this to happen:

  • Your time commitments: The more time you spend with someone the more likely it is that you will meet and interact with their closest contacts. If you and I are together 40% of the time, and you are with your best friend 60% of the time, then the three of us would be together 24% of the time. While the specific context matters, this is generally true.
  • Natural similarity: There's empirical evidence that the stronger the tie between two people, the more similar they are in many ways. This means that when your best friend and I meet, we are more likely to start a friendship when compared to two random strangers meeting each other.
  • Cognitive balance: If you and I know each other and I know that you are very close to your best friend, I will likely make an extra effort to connect with your best friend. Not doing so would introduce "psychological strain" into the situation.

What this means is that while your strong ties tend to help and be kind to you, they generally know the same people you do.

If you want to connect with other people and opportunities outside of your core network you will need to look at your weak ties.

All Bridges Are Weak Ties

The groups that you belong to are filled with people eager to help but are also filled with people who know roughly the same things that you do. If you only engage with your closest contacts, it will be difficult to find and generate new opportunities.

Mark illustrated this point through a small job hunting experiment. He found out that the best leads for job opportunities are more likely to come from your more distant acquaintances (weak ties) rather than your close friends (strong ties).

Our distant acquaintances can expose you to job openings that you and your friends wouldn't have access to. Your weak tie with someone forms a "bridge" between your close connections and theirs. It allows you to access opportunities that are visible to their strong ties.

A and B form a weak tie. If D wants to connect with B, he will need to do so via a weak tie.

I know many independent consultants who invest heavily in audience-building. They create and nurture a tight group of followers, and see many opportunities come from it. But that's certainly only a part of the road to building a healthy network.

Most consultants that do digital marketing would benefit from some rebalancing. Shifting some of their time and resources from nurturing their small group of strong ties to cultivating more weak ties. Increasing their luck surface area.

Aim to build an online presence that can support both deep relationships and serendipitous weak ties.

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