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.
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:
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.
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.
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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