What’s your social capital?

You know that person.

The one that’s always on social media tweeting links to their products every few minutes. Exclamation marks abound like they’re getting paid per instance by ExclamationMarkCo.

PSST: Stop guessing when I publish new posts and get articles like this in your inbox every Sunday.

Their website is awash with large buttons to buy something, pop-up windows telling you to sign up, and ads everywhere you look. They have a mailing list that not only bugs you to buy their product, but reminds you when you haven’t bought it.

They don’t share anything that isn’t paid for first, they never mention other people on social media, and their mailing lists are all about themselves and their own products.

You don’t want to be that person. That person thinks the problem with their lack of sales comes from not promoting themselves enough, and they get stuck in an endless loop of more self-centred promotion.

You really don’t want to be that person. That person has no social capital.

There are so many opinions, tricks, and tactics on the Internet that tell you how to sell your product or service as a freelancer or entrepreneur. It’s difficult not to try all of it.

It’s a mixed bag, though. What works for one person and their audience may not work for you. There is also a lot of advice out there that may show short-term gains but has a long-term diminishing effect on your social capital.

What is social capital?

Lyda Judson Hanifan is credited with coining the term in 1916, but it has made a resurgence lately to describe how relationships —especially online relationships— are a form of currency. When cashed in, it’s what you can ask people to do that benefits you (like buying your product or having someone share what you wrote with others).

The premise of social capital today stems from the fact that our social networks have value. The people in those networks do things for each other, such as buying products, sharing articles, and helping each other. Relationships are currency.

Think of social capital like a bank account.

You can only take out what you put in. So if you’re always asking people to buy your stuff or promoting solely yourself on social media, your balance will hit zero or negative quickly. People don’t want to buy something from someone else if that someone else is constantly bothering them on social media with “Buy my stuff!” tweets, or newsletters bestowing the virtues of their products every week.

No matter how often you ask, you won’t make any sales. No conversion tactics, pop-up messages, or sales tips will help.

You have to make deposits into your social capital account often, and build up your balance well before you ask your audience to buy what you’re selling. Do this by being helpful and creating value for as many people in your audience as possible. At the core, your social capital depends on what you can provide for your audience that builds trust, value, and reputation.

Freelancers aren’t suckers with all the time in the world to provide value to others. But unless you pound the pavement a little, especially when you’re starting out, there’s no way to bank anything.

Social networks have immense value. That’s why many entrepreneurs have mailing lists (a social network they’re in control of) that drive sales. Or why many companies engage in conversations on social media. It’s the basis behind content marketing and why it’s so popular.

There are great examples of freelancers and new businesses that are building large bank accounts of social capital that then translate into revenue streams.

Buffer, a company that helps people manage their social media accounts, writes daily on their blog — sharing well-written and well-researched articles about social media, which is the type of content that their audience is intensely interested in. They committed to providing value, for free, right from the start and have grown to more than 1.2 million users in two years, with more than 700,000 people reading their blog each month.

Chris Guillebeau, bestselling author and creator of World Domination Summit, personally emailed the first 10,000 people on his mailing list. Sometimes doing something that doesn’t scale, but is truly genuine, is a great way to form strong connections with your audience. Through his authenticity and personal touch, Chris has sold more than 300,000 books and continues to sell out the WDS event each year.

As far as building social capital using social media, there are several schools of thought, but the most popular is the 5-3-2 rule (introduced by T.A. McCann on Gist). It states that out of any 10 social media updates, five should be content from others, three should be content from you, and two should be personal updates.

How to build social capital

When it comes time to promote your own work or products, if you’ve built up enough of a balance, you won’t totally deplete your social capital balance or send it into the red. And moreover, if your audience receives your work as important and valuable, your promotion time will deplete your balance in even smaller amounts.

This isn’t some hippy altruism, this is how social currency works. The trust and value you build is something you can take straight to the bank.

How do you build your own social capital?