Are Online Business Networks on the Way Out?

03/08/2016 15:53

A couple of weeks ago, two friends of mine independently decided to leave LinkedIn. They clicked the 'close account' button and that was it...gone in an instant. I have to say, I was shocked. But then, perhaps I shouldn't have been.

LinkedIn is the world's favourite business networking service. It's available in 24 languages and as of March this year it had 433 million accounts - minus the two who just left! It's a massive success and I, like millions of others, use it on a daily basis to connect with other business people globally. I have a paid-for account and use all the functions. I love it.

However, the popularity of online business networks may be on the slide; they might have reached their peak, and maybe we've got Millennials and globalisation to blame for that.

Millennials don't do traditional online business networks

The trouble with formal online business networks is that to someone under 30 years' old, they do look a bit old and tired. They feel a bit like a dull-job office environment - all those drab colours and fine print. Let's face it, they're not very exciting are they? They do the job but they don't inspire. They're not exactly Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat, are they?

The facts seem to back this up. While Millennials are known for their love of social networks, they love real-life, in-your-face business-relationship building too. A recent research report by Weber Shandwick and the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) found that despite having been brought up surrounded by online networking spaces, Millennials actually place greater value on interpersonal, face-to-face interactions at work and after hours than us relative oldies. And in my view, I think their one-on-one attitude is starting to filter up the age range.

The 21st Century office is changing

Another thing that points to the possible demise of the traditional online network is the rise of businesses like US company WeWork, who create co-working office spaces that are more akin to communities than traditional workplaces. This new phenomenon is being driven by Millennials who are not satisfied with working at home on their own and meeting others just online. They want work to be a holistic experience; to be truly fulfilling on a personal level.

In these co-working communities you can rent a desk surrounded by other energetic, entrepreneurial people and meet a huge range of different business owners face to face, every single day. And they're not confined to single workers - businesses of up to 100 people are now taking advantage of this growing trend.

WeWork also has one of the fastest-growing online business networks but takes the old idea to the next level - the networkers are all people who work in the same building or in similar offices around the world; they organise events together and do stuff in the real world. This is what the next generation of entrepreneurs and founders want, and we need to take note!

The rise of personal networking

It's safe to say that most older workers and business leaders are not quite at the co-working stage, but while we're still using online networks to make initial introductions, over the past year I've seen a rapid increase in requests for good old-fashioned, face-to-face business meetings; everything from popping out for a coffee to full-blown dinner engagements; formal and informal.

I've also arranged a huge number of private roundtables, lunches, breakfasts and dinners in members' clubs and restaurants across London, and in fact in many world cities including New York, Boston, Paris and even Shanghai. Guest numbers have increased, the attraction to the idea has grown across every sector, and the results have been more measurable than ever before. So there is some evidence that we appear to be embracing closer personal interaction.

It seems clear to me that senior people are beginning to rediscover the joy of meetings and appreciate that only by sitting down with others can you really explore all the synergies and new opportunities, and really open the right doors. I'm thrilled and encouraged by this change.

Why are face-to-face meetings on the rise?

For the last 10 years at least, we've been told that meetings are a waste of time and resources. Why travel when you can use technology to hold the meeting with people around the world from the comfort of your desk? Cut costs, increase efficiency - don't do face-to-face meetings! The problem with this is while it might cut costs, you're not optimising the opportunity.

It may seem ironic but in a globalized world, face to face matters. It matters because whoever you're trying to impress has a long list of alternative options - other people who might be more keen to come to meet with them, rather than hiding behind a computer screen. And similarly, if you're trying to decide between five people who want you to invest in them, don't you want to get a feel not only for the business but for the person who runs it, early on in the process?

Even if these arguments are not enough, it always pays to meet certain people face to face. A phone call with a senior journalist or an MP or an industry regulator is not the same as a coffee and a chat in a relaxed atmosphere. Phone calls, or even Skype or Facetime, do not deliver the results either of you want. So next time you get a request via LinkedIn, offer to meet. What's the worst that can happen? After all, if co-working continues to grow in popularity, tomorrow's business owners, CEOs and journalists may well just be popping round the corner in the same building to meet!