If your company wants to know the philosophical basis of social media, many resources indicate it rests in the notion that consumers grew tired of advertising and marketing messages all day, every day. They turned to the Internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the access and technology barriers to entry conveniently dropped. There, they found like-minded others to share recommendations and information with.

Social media has its evolution in the notion that people don’t like being marketed to, or at least they don’t like being marketed to the way they have been for years.

Through foundational writing like The Cluetrain Manifesto, The Anatomy of Buzz, The Wisdom of Crowds, Naked Conversations and others, plus early industry blogging from folks like Shel Israel, Shel Holtz, Mike Masnick, Brian Solis, Todd Defren and more, we’ve learned that success in the social realm is predicated on sharing. You earn trust by giving of yourself, contributing to the community or conversation or both and only after trust is earned can you then ask for something in return. It’s no longer about one-way communication but a dialog, or as I have argued, a multi-logue where your customers talk with you, you with them, but them with each other in your line of sight. Advertising and similar promotional communications aren’t welcome without some other sort of interaction or engagement.

But gaining clarity in what that actually means for businesses, brands and even individuals is not simple.

Social Media Marketing Balance (click for larger version)

Social Media Marketing Balance (click for larger version)

First, the rules change depending upon the platform. It might be fine to be 100-percent promotion or sales driven on a blog that you author. It’s not well received if you treat your Twitter interaction that way. But then again, if you state your purpose, it can be well received on Twitter. The Twitter account @delloutlet has been successful to the tune of $2 million as, primarily, a sales driver. While @StephanieatDell mans (womans?) the account and does engage with people, the original purpose was to drive people to buy product. There are different levels of tolerance for sales and promotion for each platform (blogs, forums, microblogging, wikis) and then even variations on the norm within specific communities built on those platforms (Posting sales messages is accepted on some forums, not on others, etc.).

To add another layer of complexity to the sharing vs. promoting argument, there are different rules and expectations for individuals versus businesses, and even a variety of expectations from a business depending upon its industry and purpose. An independent consultant can be somewhat self-promotional and it is expected and understood since it’s his or her livelihood. There might be less tolerance for the CEO of a company to throw around the same types of drivers in conversations. I think there is a general level of understanding that someone representing a company in the financial services, healthcare, insurance or pharmaceutical industries or even some government agencies can’t always speak freely about products and services because of regulations and public safety concerns. The expectations of the audience then change.

So how do you know what’s accepted and what’s not. How do you walk the fine line between using social media for a purpose and participating in social media to have that permission?

Social media purists and philosophers will wax poetic about listening. And it is true: You must listen to the conversations and understand the societal norms for each community in which you participate. You must also listen to know who is talking about you and what they are (or are not) saying. From Google Alerts to the paid services like Radian6, Scout Labs, Techrigy and more, the tools are there for you to listen and learn what is and is not acceptable when communicating with consumers there.

But listening isn’t always enough, from a speed or information perspective. So how can you learn more, faster? How can we participate here and now without considerable risk to our reputations? Here are some thoughts:

  • Ask
    You can monitor conversations about Twitter all day without a single person saying, “It’s not appropriate to be 100-percent promotional on Twitter. Only X percent is acceptable.” So ask. Ask other company representatives what they’ve learned. Ask the social media folks you follow what’s on- or off-limits. Or, even better, ask your followers what is acceptable to them. The same holds true for Facebook, forums, blogs and other platforms. Ask those who interact with you there. They’ll tell you what works and what doesn’t.
  • Tell
    Clearly state the reason you’re engaging in a particular platform or tool in a place that’s easy for the community to find. Your Twitter background or bio, the signature on your forum or message board entries, the sidebar of your blog or website are all easy places to say, “This is what we use this medium for. If you’d like to reach us for other reasons, here are the best ways to do so.” If you wind up with a low number of followers or respondents to what you do, you’ll know the audience isn’t down with what you’re using it for. Adjust and move forward.
  • Answer
    Make sure you tip a cap to the spirit of social media marketing and give consumers an avenue to reach out to a real, live person with your company. Sure, it can be a phone number or an email, but consider a Twitter account for direct interaction with people, a Facebook page where someone actively responds or a blog/forum/message board where someone from the company interacts regularly. So long as people have SOME way of having a conversation with you, they’ll probably be pretty happy with your company’s availability.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Furthermore, what are acceptable levels of promotion for brands? Small businesses? Individuals as businesses? Individuals promoting personal passions or hobbies? Is there a threshold or tipping point or does it always vary based on sender and/or receiver and we’ll never know?

Lots of questions … share your answers with us in the comments.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    I don't think it's impossible at all and wouldn't be surprised if that's how it pans out. But there will always be a need for a tactile experience. Whether or not that will be in the form of magazines, newspapers, etc., or via Kindles or other electronic devices, there will likely be something other than social media.

    Still, I don't see your impossible as impossible at all. We're closer to it now than you think.

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Thank you for saying so. I agree with you. Give to get … great rule to follow.

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Excellent point, Vicky. That one is often overlooked, hopefully because we're learning every day and take it for granted. Excellent reminder, though.

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    A social media should be approached elegantly. Just blasting out online advertising simply because you can is a surefire way to drive your audience away from anything you have to offer.

  • http://www.networkmarketingsuccess.ws mlgreen8753

    A social media should be approached elegantly. Just blasting out online advertising simply because you can is a surefire way to drive your audience away from anything you have to offer.

  • rainy124

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  • rainy124

    Hi! Its one of the best post,which contain very useful information which helps me a lot and thanks for the innovative thinking and also for the nice thinking,keep up post and thanks a lot.

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  • http://www.jucktion.com/forums Social Discussion Forums

    Social media totally depends on “GIVE”. If there is no give then is no society or anything social. But business is different. Its all about take or sometime give some to make more.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Certainly a good attitude to have. Appreciate the comment.

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    I never use social media, I used to using google, I think i will try social media later,but before use it ,I have to learn more abt it,thank you

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    I can see you fell victim to the blog upkeep. Speaking of data center consolidation as you did in your last post, so you work for Sun Microsystems?

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    I can see you fell victim to the blog upkeep. Speaking of data center consolidation as you did in your last post, so you work for Sun Microsystems?

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    the more you give, the more you will get. As people see you as a resource, you start to earn their trust and establish yourself as a good social media citizen.

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