Introductions, Referrals, Recommendations and References – Not Created Equally Online

In these days of social media madness and online relationships, it can take even more work to be sure that who you’re talking to is genuine, qualified and credible. I’ve noticed that people ask for things online in a more bold way than they used to, when face-to-face relationships ruled. Just this week I’ve been asked to write references for people I don’t know, link to and “check out and promote” several products – ranging from consumer goods and business apps, to social media training services – all of which I’ve never tried (PS you know this is what companies pay me to do, right?), and to make introductions for someone to another person who I’m not even connected with or know. What is it about digital relationships that make people so bold? How much clout do you give referrals or recommendations on networking communities and online reputation graders such as Klout, BranchOut, RateStars, Namyz and countless others? How do you handle it when a near (or total) stranger asks for a referral or other validation? Sometimes you might not even think too much about it because social networks make it so easy to just provide a recommendation without really thinking it through.

Managing your personal brand is important, yes. Ensuring your online activity is of positive quality – absolutely essential in business. Showcasing a robust online “rolodex” and “Klout score” is also key for most business professionals – especially in social marketing. But asking for and displaying recommendations or “references” from folks that really don’t know you or your work is a little misleading – and in my opinion, getting to become a disturbing “norm.” Asking for an introduction is one thing, but introductions, referrals, recommendations and references are not created equally. Do you know the difference?

  • Introduction – offering to introduce someone to a professional who works in a certain industry or could provide services that a company is seeking. Perhaps you just know of them and are connecting them with someone seeking vendors.
  • Referral – similar to an introduction, a referral could include someone you haven’t worked with, as long as you make that clear, such as, “I see you are seeking a socially savvy PR firm. I have heard that PerkettPR is great, although I’ve never personally worked with them.” These are also often made as a result of being connected online in communities such as Namyz or BranchOut.
  • Recommendation – usually involves knowing the work of a particular person, company or product, such as “I recommend PerkettPR because I’ve seen their digital work and am always impressed,” or “I tried this product and it worked for me.” Recommendations are big on Linkedin – but it’s important to note that many times people ask others to provide them without actually having worked together. It’s kind of like “link love” – I’ll give you one if you give me one. Make sure it’s a legit recommendation.
  • Reference – this is key. A reference is usually what someone asks for when they’ve been through all of the above… Such as, “Okay, I was introduced or referred to you, I received or read a few recommendations from folks in the industry who know of you and have seen your work, now I’d like to talk to someone who has actually worked with you and can talk to the results that you delivered, your work style, etc.”

And why should you care? I can think of a few reasons – both personal and professional:

  • Are you hiring employees?
  • Qualifying a vendor?
  • Hiring a services firm (like PR)?
  • Comparing products?

These are important business developments and should be vetted appropriately. Make sure you know the difference between someone providing a recommended vendor or individual based on word of mouth, and an actual reference based on experience. Online relationships have blurred the lines and sometimes people are providing recommendations to others just for popularity points, unfortunately. Be sure that you speak to actual references when hiring an employee, vendor or services firm, especially. The online world can still be misleading.

I also suggest doing some of your own digging to find people or companies who have worked with the person or vendor before – that aren’t on their reference list. For example, if you’re seeking a new PR firm, Google who a specific firm has worked with and reach out to someone there to ask about their experience. Sometimes the unlisted references are the best references.