How To Win Friends And Influence People In The Digital Age

by Michael Simmons on Sep 17, 2014

Credit: Don Hankins / Flickr

Credit: Don Hankins / Flickr

How we build relationships has fundamentally changed as a result of the Internet. Yet few people realize the implications. Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic, How To Win Friends & Influence People, has helped tens of millions of people build in-person relationships. We need new universal principles for building relationships online.

Throughout human history, the predominant way we’ve built relationships is through real-time conversation. This throne is about to be taken over if it hasn’t already been.

As I wrote about in Why Creating Content Trumps Face-To-Face Meetings, the new king of the land is content.

Beers at the bar has become status updates. The shift is easy to belittle, but we should pay respect. Creating content is far more important than most of us realize.

Our content (the photos, videos, audio, articles, and status updates) can reach many more people than we ever could one-on-one, reflect our most authentic self, and distill our deepest wisdom. It serves as a beacon for kindred spirits and business collaborators by sharing who we are and what we know. If done right, it accelerates relationships by months and years.

We all now have a god-like ability to to instantly publish our thoughts to our global network with the click of a button.

However, a voice does not a singer make. Most of us are squandering the tools we’ve been given and blaming it on the tools rather than ourselves.

As opposed to bringing people closer, many times we unintentionally push others away and possibly make them feel depressed by using our abilities to erect trophy walls and highlight reels of ourselves and our companies.

How do we get over this awkwardness and build authentic relationships online?

Getting Over The Awkward Teenage Years Of Content

Throughout all of human history, it has only been in the past five years that a significant percentage of society has started consistently creating content. In other words, we are currently in eight A.S.U. (after status updates).

We are in the awkward teenage years of learning how to communicate online. And sometimes, it is no less awkward than those years were for most of us.

During my most awkward phase of high school, I did everything I could to fit my idealized image of popularity. I threw away my sweatpants for a whole new wardrobe at Abercrombie & Finch, including a scarf I wore indoors. I started taking creatine and lifting weights daily so I could have a six pack and ‘guns’. Finally, I bought a library of VHS videos from on how to dance, including everything from hip-hop to Salsa. None of it worked.

My life changed when I learned a very simple set of principles; ‘Listen more than you talk’, ‘Smile’, ‘Remember people’s names’, and ‘Encourage others to talk about themselves’. Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People unlocked a whole new dimension of connection I had seen others have, but never experienced myself.


Here’s the problem; the Internet did not exist when Dale Carnegie was alive.

In-person we know who we’re talking to and how they feel about what we’re saying. It is easy to hold attention. Online the audience is invisible and distracted.

We need a new set of universal principles that help us build authentic relationships in the digital era.

The 12 Commandments Everyone Should Follow To Build Relationships Online

Much has been written about the art and science of creating content in the fields of journalism and content marketing. Little has been written about ‘content relationship building’, creating content specifically designed to build authentic network.

The following 12 principles, developed from personal experience and interviewing top content relationship builders, can be used to win friends and influence people online:

  • Principle 1: Pick A Platform That Reflects Your Strengths. Each form of expression (audio vs. video vs. text vs. photos) requires time to find your voice on and understand the intricacies of. Some platforms are better suited to who you are than others. Start with one platform, master it, and then move on to others.

  • Principle 2: Share Your Inside Story. Be just as transparent with your inside story (challenges and learnings) as you are with your outside story (results and successes). Paradoxically, the things we’re most afraid to share are often what connect us the most with others.

  • Principle 3: Identify Your Biggest Counterintuitive Insights About The World. Deepen your most valuable insights about the world so they are clear, convincing and useful to others rather than generic (ie – work hard, follow your passion). As doers, we consciously learn things until they become automatic. Then, we forget about them. This is more efficient. However, if you want to share your unique insights in a way that is valuable for other people, you need to deconstruct your lessons learned.

  • Principle 4: Know The Truths You’d Be Willing To Die For (Or At Least Sacrifice For). Online there is a temptation and an ability to create a version of ourselves that we think others want to see, but that does not reflect who we truly are. This may work in the short-run, but it ultimately leads to you feeling like a fraud and being perceived as less trustworthy by others. Identify the values that are most important to you and that you actually consistently follow through on.

  • Principle 5: Prepare To Present, Not Have Conversations. Communicating online is more like a speech than a conversation. Take the time to modify how you express yourself so it reflects your most authentic self. This extra time can actually help you be more authentic, rather than less.

  • Principle 6: Learn How To Tell Your Story Through The Content You Create. Learn the grammar of storytelling. We are hardwired to pay attention to and understand stories. There are underlying, learnable patterns to great stories such as having a relatable main character and a plot with a conflict, turning point, and resolution.

  • Principle 7: Cultivate Digital Self-Awareness. Take the time to understand how your content is interpreted by others. The feedback mechanisms (comments/likes/shares vs. tonality/body language/facial expression) are completely different online than they are offline. The challenge of the Internet is that most of the audience is invisible and gives no feedback. If you don’t proactively counteract this lack of data, you could delude yourself into a reality that does not exist.

  • Principle 8: Respond To All Commenters In The Beginning. Only a small percentage of your audience actually interacts with your posts. Examine the pros and cons of different approaches and commit to one. It is often more important, easier, and more rewarding to be very active when you’re just getting started. As you get larger, there are more comments than you have time to respond to. Furthermore, there are trolls who posts negative comments no matter what you do.

  • Principle 9: Focus On Your Headline. The most read words of your writing will be your headline. The second most read will be the very first sentence. Invest your time accordingly. There is a learnable science of virality.

  • Principle 10: Find Your Voice That Is Uniquely You. Practice finding a match between your authentic voice and resonating with an audience.

  • Principle 11: Communicate Like You’re Talking To A Friend (Or At Least A Human). Drop roles and labels (ie – customer, acquaintance), and treat people with as much thoughtfulness, kindness and integrity as you would a friend.

  • Principle 12: Create Content That You’d Want Yourself. Think of creating content as connecting personally and deeply with kindred spirits, not broadcasting for the masses. If you treat people like a mass audience, they’ll respond in-kind.

The Meek Shall Inherit The Internet

The skillsets required for having a great conversation are different than those required for creating seminal content. Therefore, there will be new winners and losers in the online world.

Quiet people might be overlooked in-person, but shine online. In the offline world, things like our height make a surprisingly big impact on our success. Online, our height is invisible.

Ultimately, those who are able to successfully and consistently capture people’s attention for their ideas, causes, and businesses will be those who deliberately practice the skillset needed to be successful in this new world.

The hardest part of practicing isn’t learning the mechanics of storytelling. It’s the emotional labor of sharing who you are and what you think with the world. It’s being vulnerable. It’s constantly breaking social norms in order to be true to yourself. It’s sharing ideas that you believe to be true, but that no one else knows or agrees with…yet. It’s not being sure how other people will respond. It’s not knowing if you’ve crossed a line until you’ve hit publish.

How To Practice The Hard Part Of Building Relationships Online

In June 2010, Dr. Brené Brown made one of the most important decisions of her career. She was going to be delivering a TED talk later that month on her vulnerability research. She was tempted to just share her research results. Instead, she decided to also share her personal struggle with vulnerability. This approach deeply connected with the audience in the room and audiences across the world digitally. Taking this risk was not easy. In her words, “I woke up the morning after I gave that Talk with the worst vulnerability hangover of my life. And I actually didn’t leave my house for about three days.” 16 million people later, her words have had a huge impact on the world.

It’s easy to turn feelings of uneasiness into an excuse for why it’s not worth the risk. Here’s the problem, if you play it safe, you could be robbing the world of you and your message.

NYU professor, Terri Senft, who coined the term microcelebrity, provides a valuable set of questions to ask yourself in order to help you navigate this new path:


This article is part of a series on how to create content that builds authentic online relationships. Upcoming articles will explain how to apply all of the principles shared in this article. To receive those articles, you can subscribe to my newsletter.


This article was originally published on Forbes


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I'm the co-founder of Empact, one of the leading entrepreneurship education organizations in the world. I'm obsessed with understanding how we all can lead meaningful lives that have a positive social impact. I love probing into the truth of how we experience life. I believe that challenges are what make us grow the most, and I openly share my experiences. Continue reading…