The Hand Carried Letter

letter carrier The whole idea of how we exchange information in this social world is on my mind. In short, we rely on each other more than ever to share information, and we rely on these human exchanges to relate news, marketing, and other informational communication. Further, we rely on people to share in a reasonable and equitable and value-centered way.

If that’s true, and I believe it is, we have to really think about how we share, how we make our requests, and about what Dr. Stephen R. Covey called the “emotional bank account?” How can we share information beyond the first person? Let’s talk about the hand-carried letter.

The Hand-Carried Letter

In some ways, as we’ve shifted to this ubiquitous distribution world, where I can be a video maker, a radio host, a newspaper, a book, and a public speaker all from my couch, something else shifted as well. In a world where everyone can distribute information, that means there’s lots more information. That means data at Jackson Pollock velocity. Too much too read means much more goes unread.

We need “the hand-carried letter.”

A hand-carried letter means to me that the person choosing to share information with me believes in what she is sharing, and believes that it’s something I want to know about.

Think about the mail in your inbox (or clogging your social channels). Think about the mail you’re sending. Can you say this about the information you’re choosing to share?

Sharing and The Tax on Friendship

As time passes, we rely on our friends to vet and share information. Let’s use “friends” to include business colleagues, online personalities we’ve come to trust (me?), and others who we believe to have a handle on things. We look to these people for information that has already been considered once.

Example: I learn about the real time web from Louis Gray. I don’t even bother reading about it from other sources any more. When PR people send me info that seems like something Louis will cover, I either tell them to see Louis, or I delete and wait for Louis to cover it.

Example: I learn about interesting, thought-provoking books from Whitney Hoffman and Ann and Michael. I might or might not get other sources for this, but I trust the hand-carried letter of what Whitney and Ann and Michael are sharing.

But what about when people need something to travel far? Lots of us seem to have causes and needs and businesses to promote online. We have things we think are important, but sharing this information and spreading it requires that we find people who think it’s interesting enough to hand-carry to their audiences, their communities, their constituent masses.

Asking our friends to share things is a tax. If every person alive has what Dr. Stephen R. Covey calls an “emotional bank account” between us, this asking requires a small withdrawal. If things are going well between two people, and/or if the “ask” isn’t too big, this tax is small. But what if someone starts asking you to share every little thing all the time? Or, what if the person asking doesn’t really have much stored up in the emotional bank account between you? Just because you *can* reach me via email or Twitter doesn’t mean I support your causes. Right? How does your multiple asking tax those loosely-joined friendships? It taxes them at a much higher rate, is the answer.

It adds up quickly.

Ensuring Prompt Delivery

Thus, in this environment, we have to do several things, if we’re to rely on friends and loosely-joined connections to deliver hand-carried letters for us.

  • Give much more frequently than you ask. This gives others a better feeling about who you are and what you do for the space at large.
  • Share without being asked, when you consider information good. This builds up points in one’s emotional bank account (we talk about this in our pending book, Trust Agents, by the way).
  • Make the requests simple, infrequent, and brief. (If you make it hard for me to share, why should I?)
  • Ask only when you need it most. Asking others to share every little thing taxes the relationship.
  • Don’t seek hand-carried letter service if you’re really intending a mass-mail message.
  • Build your information such that it’s “hand-carried” friendly (brief, portable, shareable, addressable (with a URL).
  • Thank people for sharing, as often as you can.

What’s Your Take?

Does this resonate? How do you see the information sharing world changing? What does this mean for you or your business?

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  • Carissa Caramanis O'Brien

    Absolutely agree. This means we put relationships first and ensure human consideration takes precedence in our social collaboration. All too often lately, folks are getting caught up in their causes or their business objectives and forget that we are, in fact, tapping our collective networks for an extremely valuable and all-to-taxed resource: their time and attention. Yes, we think they should care, and hopefully we've found a way to articulate why they should, but let's not forget the relationships upon all this networking and collaboration is built. There are a hundred other worthy things for each of them to spend their time advocating for. Make sure they feel good about advocating for you….and don't forget to answer the call, enthusiastically, when they need help from you.

  • Tom Webster

    Increasingly, for me, the 'hand-carried letter' I respond to is the phone. Those that really have my trust, have my phone number–and I always pick up the phone whenever I can (you never know what you'll miss if you don't, and it often surprises folks who were all geared up to leave me a voice mail!). With so much of our communication conducted as bits, a phone call tells me that you really were thinking exclusively of me, and that you really do value my opinion, input or help, all of which I'm likely to give when I do, in fact, get a 'hand-carried letter.'

  • Chris Brogan

    Quite interesting. I called a few people last week at random, and in every case, they seemed pleasantly surprised. You're on to something here, webby! : )

  • frank barry

    Makes a LOT of sense Chris.

    What comes to mind initially is “It takes work” … no matter what type of relationship it is … it takes work to make it valuable to the other person and for the other person to make it valuable to you.

    This reminds me of “The Love Bank” … A very similar idea used in a marriage relationship. I have to continue giving, serving, helping, etc… in order to keep the love bank full – deposit, deposit, deposit!! And my wife has to do the same. This way we keep meeting each others needs.

    As you point out, the same holds true for any relationship.

    In the online world it may be magnified because we don't have as much of the face to face interaction which, in my opinion, makes it harder to build great relationships.

    I try to give more than i receive as much as possible, but it is hard to keep going strong all the time =)

  • Terra Winston

    This is such an important post! Social networks have made it easier to connect but are no substitute for the power of trusting relationships. Too many people confuse the tools (linkedin, fb, twitter) for actual relationships and don't make enough effort to build emotional bank accounts. Whenever I “hand carry” a message, both it's content and creator reflect on MY reputation. That's a lot to ask of a person, especially if you haven't put any investment into building trust!

    So, if you want your messages hand carried, there are a 2 very simple (but often ignored) steps. First, invest energy, time, and trust into building reciprocal relationships. Second, create meaningful and relevant content that adds value to readers -then they'll have no problem sharing the information, whether they know you or not.

  • Chris Brogan

    Well, you've been like “commenter of the year” here, it seems like, Frank, so keep up the great work. You're clearly someone delivering a lot of hand-carried letters.

  • jboller

    Chris – I really like your post. If you're interested in the emotional tax, you might check out Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow. He talks about people's “whuffie” (inspiration for Tara Hunt's book, The Whuffie Factor). If you haven't read it yet, I recommend it. I'm almost done now and I keep trying to “ping people's whuffie.” It's changed the way I think..

    I also think a point you might have touched on is the growing element of social good as a factor for businesses. Sure, as a business, you could donate to a special cause to show that you are caring, but if you don't actually look after your customers, then will it really show through? By contrast, if you don't donate to support a cause but are very engaged and give as much as you can to customers, does that make your business any less noble?

    I'm going off on a tangent, but I've been thinking more about “community service” as a changing in meaning for businesses while also being adopted more. I want to blog about it, but I haven't been able to do background research yet to see if and how this trend might be developing over time.

  • Jae Burnham

    A great article about how to slow down and remember the good ol days. Well that's what I got out it.

  • Suzanne Vara/ Lvadgal

    Great insight on trusted information as well as becoming trusted to supply pertinent information and content.

    The “emotional bank account” plays such a big role when asking people to help. For some the 3 hardest words are “Can you help”. Those starting out and developing their niche rely upon the emotions of others to help them grow. In the beginning simply telling people “Hey I wrote this, can you let me know what you think” is inviting them to read, comment and if valuable they just might share – but this only works for a short time.

    Ultimately there are those that will go great lengths to help people out and hardly ever ask for anything in return but there are those who are the “I do not work for free but ask that you do”

    For me a good rule of thumb is provide insight and help as much as you can as I want to be the one that is top of mind when those that I am helping get asked what or how they did it.


  • Stefano Maggi

    Chris, this makes a lot of sense. We're living in an environment where what @armano defines as “human feed” is replacing the cold non-human interaction between man and machine.

    I had the pleasure to listen to a speech by @gsiemens recently at the International Forum on Enterprise 2.0 and I was hit by the concept of “gatekeeper”.

    The big asset is not anymore how much you know: anyone can run faster than you and build up bigger knowledge. What differentiates valuable people in a social environment is the ability to understand (and help understand) where to look for information.

    This is why the social web is evolving from Wikis to collaboration platform based on conversation like the ones SocialText or Google Wave, IMHO.

    In my everyday job I notice this a lot: inside the agency where I work as an experience planner, but also outside in the experiences and conversation we build with our clients and their consumers. The human factor, the “hand” has become crucial. Sometimes more important than the letter.

    Keep on carrying your letters.

  • Alex Fortney

    Indeed, it's no wonder some people find Social Media bewildering. It's a double-edged sword – everyone can be a publisher and as a result the amount of information we have to sift through to find content that's truly valuable grows exponentially.

    These days the challenge of staying smart on the Social Web is as much about editing skills as it is about publishing skills.

  • designtramp

    It's a it like “one-size-fits-all” or “universal remote,” unlikely. The demand, or expectation more appropriately stated, is that there is a silver bullet: do this one thing and have all your needs satisfied. Like a blog and free twitter account will replace thoughtful strategizing, in-person customer service and leaving the desk. At some point people will need to accept that it's no one thing, it's everything—
    in sickness and health
    for better and for worse
    in person and online

    Mix it up, be genuine and keep on keepin' on.

  • frank barry

    Don't make me blush like that man.

    Sharing while not expecting something in return is pretty important. (your tip #2 with a twist). I come back here to give back because you have shared a lot of great stuff that has helped me figure out social media. Good content deserves to be talked about.

    Some day, when you come to San Diego, we'll have to grab a beer =)

  • Bad Chris Brogan

    Great post. Your words are like … like angels tear drops that fall on my lap when I read them. I never want to wash that lap again.

  • ChrisDonaldson

    When I was deep in the PR game, I built trust with media outlets by only coming to them after careful consideration and certainty that whatever it was I was pitching had value to them. I'd do tons of legwork, write hand-written letter to editors, and often not even expect anything the first time around except the beginning of a relationship. This led to long-term gain and lots of good press – and people were actually happy to hear (most) of my pitches. Good ink was the result. Like you said “Ask only when you need it most'.

    Spot on.

  • jon burg

    There are two areas that social media needs: signing telegrams and home baked pies. Make it personal, make it real, make it remarkable. Spend a buck and tell people that you mean it.

    Or just hand deliver a letter. good stuff.

    Then again, if it's isn't worth baking a pie, don't ask them for room on their table.

  • Scott

    Insightful comments! Love the concept of the 'hand held letter'. I have been researching the concept of 'reciprocity – mutual benefit' in business relationships for the past 10 years. My observations suggest many can understand the principles and logic. But they find the practice of acting reciprocally difficult to sustain…They seem to struggle with getting the very key point that you make…it is in our best interests to make sure we are paying attention to the interests of others. My sense is that information sharing relationships are sustained or diminished by the degree of sustained mutual benefit.

  • MLDina

    Such a relevant topic, especially with the increasing availability of social media tools to make new friends/followers. I trust certain colleagues, friends, etc for information, and while I still am active on forums and social networking sites, I value input from some commenters more than others. Quality over quantity is extremely important when building and maintaining relationships.

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  • dkreitzberg

    Great post, Chris. As the communities increase in scale, its value to each participant diminishes. In fact, I bet someone has already figured out what the natural size of an individual's community is relative to the value they derive from it (think of the concept of adding sand to a sand pile — it grows and grows until one point it collapses in an avalanche following a power law — communities too can grow and grow and then they collapse).

    Irregardless, the concept of selecting key individuals or sources for information will become a value in and of itself. They could be self-selected (like you have in this post) or selected via past behavior (like Amazon model).

    I think the future of social media is not towards quantity but quality and the concept of micro-social (small communities of trusted individuals/brands in which I participate) will become more of the norm, if it doesn't exist already.

  • suzemuse

    I too, can't help but consider the face to face relationship – these things you mention about sharing-, Chris, are all seemingly (for many – maybe?) common sense things that we're taught in kindergarten. Share and share alike, I seem to recall (when I wasn't getting in trouble for talking in class :).

    It's a great point, as you say @franswaa (hi!) that the method of interaction is magnified in the online world. I often wonder why that is? I'm re-reading “The Tipping Point” in preparation for seeing Gladwell speak tomorrow here in Ottawa, and the points he makes about body language, facial expression and the conversational “dance” we do when in the physical presence of each other might have something to do with it – is it possible that understanding how to interact and share is just more complex when the physical element is removed?

  • Ryan Miller


    This post really hit home with me. We all think that our content is the best and are just waiting for it to spread all over the web. But waiting wont' cut it, so naturally the “Please RT” or group email asking friends to spread the word is usually where things start.

    This post immediately made me think of people who over-share – who clog your FB feed and tweet about every little thing they are selling. Thinking about it as a tax is the perfect metaphor.

    Teaching clients about social media at our agency (@romanelli) has been interesting because as you point out, just because you have someone's e-mail or phone number doesn't give you the right to use it incessantly. Its about building trust and providing a hand carried letter.

    This should be required reading for people and businesses especially who are getting into social.


  • frank barry

    I think you have it Suze — We can't read body language, hear peoples tone, look them in the eye or sense their spirit.

  • michael lamb

    “Give much more frequently than you ask.” — Are you serious? I once asked you to share something once and you said “If i shared everything everyone asked me to I'd be doing nothing but sharing other people's stuff all day” (without even looking at what it was, and by the way it was an interesting concept for a non-profit that I was merely working with trying to help them). While at the time your response as “your policy” I completely understood it, reading this now is a load of hypocritical bs coming from you

  • Jamie Favreau

    I agree with you.
    I generally try and share as much information. It is hard to ask for help but you need to know when to ask.
    Great content as usual Chris!

  • Therese

    This is so dead one. I make it a point to try to give back to the people I have connected with. I make a constant effort to go into my RSS feeds everyday and tell people if there is something interesting I am reading.

    I think it takes a lot of time, energy and thinking that goes into someones writing and if they provide useful information I feel compelled to share it. Even if you are in a specific niche it is hard being useful when there are so many others in that same niche, i try to be creative and relevant, but I am sure at times I have been redundant.

    Great Post!

  • Facebook User

    Great post! And really timely (as most of your posts are) as I'm cautiously stepping up my own level of social media engagement, and trying to be sure I give more than double and ask very little…

  • Terrintokyo

    Great post! And really timely (as most of your posts are) as I'm cautiously stepping up my own level of social media engagement, and trying to be sure I give more than double and ask very little…

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