On Authentic (Virtual) Relationships

By Nancy Colasurdo

Ted Rubin operates at a dizzying pace.

He tells me that when he hangs up from our phone interview he will move to a nice spot under a beach umbrella, maybe snap a pic of the ocean. But as we’re talking, he gets a delivery of yoyos and he admits he’s playing with one right there in the living room where he’s staying in Pompano Beach, Fla.

“I met an amazing yoyo guy, Chris Mikulin, at a conference,” Rubin says. “He had these newfangled yoyos. I started telling him about how I used to do walk the dog and rock the baby. We met and bonded there. He said, ‘I want to make you a yoyo that says Return on Relationship.’”

Those three words, Return on Relationship, or perhaps simply the hashtag #RonR, are at the core of what Rubin lives riveted to – connecting with people. But he puts far more context to it when I ask him the question.

“First of all, what keeps me up at night … I want to make sure I can take care of myself,” he says. “I had to fight to keep my kids in my life [after a divorce]. I was in debt. I found a home in the social media world and I built things back up.

“Sometimes people will say, ‘You don’t have to work so hard’ or ‘Work smart.’ I’m very obsessed with what I’m doing. I love connecting with people. I’m incredibly attached to it. I’ve been able to create a living off of it.”

A living is putting it mildly.

Last year when AdWeek ran an article about the top 50 retweeted people when it comes to the mid-sized marketing demo, Rubin was eighth. This is a list where Nos. 15, 16 and 17 were Barack Obama, George Takei and Guy Kawasaki, respectively. Rubin was 13th on a Forbes list of Social Media Power Influencers and his website – which gets over 100,000 unique visitors a month – features dozens of such mentions.

According to the site, Rubin is “a leading social marketing strategist, keynote speaker, brand evangelist and acting CMO of Brand Innovators.” I tell him he is nothing like the slick-sounding people who regularly tell me they can quadruple my web traffic with a magic wand. He explains why.

“I’ve always known different,” says Rubin, who studied business and economics at Cornell. “I’ve always been a relationship seller. I would take the sales skills I was taught and apply them to how they’d work most comfortably for me.”

It’s about people, not numbers.

In March 2009 he started publicly using the term ‘Return on Relationship’ with regard to social media; it’s also the name of his first book. While many were resisting the “social” realm on the Internet, Rubin was learning how it fit right into a philosophy he’d had all along.

“I was always a people connector,” he says. “Growing up, my friends always knew each other. Because I was born in late December [and missed the cutoff for the school year] I had groups of friends from different places. At age 12 I went to camp and made friends there. I had relatives in different places. I always wanted my friends to know each other. I’ve been a community builder without knowing I was building communities.”

Now translate that to the current day modes of conducting business via social media avenues. Rubin defines return on relationship as “value that is accrued by a person or brand due to nurturing a relationship.” It means interacting with others on Facebook and Snap Chat, Twitter and Pinterest and the others, not just posting out of obligation and moving to your next task. That accomplishes little.

“ROI is simple dollars and cents,” Rubin says. “ROR is the value (both perceived and real) that will accrue over time through loyalty, recommendations and sharing.”

Just because it’s not face-to-face doesn’t mean it isn’t real. That might be the most significant takeaway from talking to Rubin or following him on “social.” He might post a thought-provoking quote or his latest cool pair of socks (he collects them) or he might share photos of his daughter’s graduation or news of his mother’s passing.

Rubin is all in. This is a guy in an awful lot of relationships that require his touch. That’s why sometimes business is conducted under a beach umbrella or from an airport. Pausing to snap a photo and share it keeps the conversation going. Some stillness on that beach allows him time to generate ideas.

For those who scoff at the idea of a social media expert – one of the most recognized and lauded around – making real connections via his computer or devices, Rubin sees them as people who don’t immerse themselves in the technology. Further, he counts on their existence.

“I’m thrilled,” he says, laughing. “I’d have to come up with something new if everybody got it.”

Rubin says consumers seem to get what he’s trying to teach more than companies do. But his next book, How to Look People in the Eye Digitally, addresses that. In an age where it’s common knowledge that our data is being collected all the time, our expectations will be shifting more and more in our interactions with stores and other businesses.

“It will come to a point where we’ll expect it,” Rubin says. “When we go to Lowe’s, we’ll expect them to know about our last project. They’ll also know more. They’ll be able to see [from data] – does Ted want to be in and out quickly or does he want to be catered to?”

For the record, he’ll probably want to keep up that dizzying pace – make a purchase and hit the road.

Maybe take a picture and Tweet it out to the masses.