Five Rules for Responsible Social Marketing


"I am baking cream cheese cupcakes this morning." 

A colleague of mine tweeted this and got a message within a few minutes that said something like:

"Become a fan of Brand X cream cheese"

Now, wait a minute. Where did that come from?

Unfortunately, we can expect a lot more of this in the future. I say "unfortunately", because this is clearly bad for business. At worst, it will erode the power of the social channel; at best, it will become the social equivalent of email spam – essentially transparent clutter in our inboxes.  With Facebook’s and Twitter’s new "publicity" policies, most people’s conversations are now exposed to those willing to pay for them. These are not "privacy" policies, because you automatically agree to share your information, unless you manually opt-out. First of all, how many people truly understand the issue, and second, how many know how to opt-out?  Not many on either account.

Why is this bad for business?  To paraphrase Henry L. Stimson, a U.S. statesman, "nice people don’t read each other’s correspondence." This means eavesdropping on conversations, or snooping on email, Twitter, or Facebook posts.  Since most people are not aware that they are being followed; they will be shocked and pissed when they find out.

So practice responsible social marketing. Here are some of my own guidelines:

  1. Don’t connect with people beyond the context of the relationship – if people sign up on your website to get a monthly newsletter, don’t assume you can send them a message every week with your latest announcements.
  2. Social outreach needs to be subtle – use Twitter and Facebook to create real communities where participants get value for participating. Pummeling prospects with ads or product pitches through these channels is inappropriate. Recently, I see more and more companies following me on Twitter. I don’t really think this is a good thing.
  3. Respect people’s privacy online, even if you don’t have to. It is one thing to follow someone on Twitter, it is another thing to mine Tweets to build a prospect list. Just because I tweet that I am baking cream cheese muffins, doesn’t mean I want to be a cream cheese fan. This is really tricky, because this type of outreach can be a good way to find people who share your interests, but you need to be careful.  Err on the side of caution. The price of pissing people off is high when you are playing with your organization’s brand equity. Even if you don’t agree that this is inappropriate, others might. Would you like to see your "campaign" exposed in popular blogs as an example of inappropriate marketing behavior
  4. "Social" means that interaction is two-way. Connect in ways that don’t trigger "fight or flight." When you join a community, listen at first to understand the conversation, and then join the ongoing thread. Don’t try to divert the conversation to your agenda. How many times have you seen people join a LinkedIn group and immediately send out blasts offering their professional services?  This is such a turnoff. Would you actually hire someone like that?
  5. Approach people in a respectful manner – how do you feel when someone on an airplane eavesdrops on your conversation, and then butts in with comments? It is no different online. Letting people know how you reached them, and providing a context for why they might be interested in interacting with you, is not only good manners, it is good business.

As always, I would like to hear about others’ experiences and hear more suggestions.


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  • Scott Zimmerman

    I completely agree. In our Twitter, Facebook and SMS world, reputation is more important than ever before. Companies need to be respectful of the limited privacy we have these days. If they aren’t, it will create a negative situation quickly once it is relayed on the social networking sites.

    I’d like to expand on numbers 1 and 2, if I may. Once a consumer signs up to receive a newsletter or other information on a company website, the questions that consumer is asked should include what specific information they would like to receive and how they want to receive it – email, SMS, phone - evensnail mail.

    Businesses need to show that we’re making an effort. Today’s consumers expect—and in many cases demand—that information be tailored to their ever-changing needs and interests.

    Thank you for this post! Great discussion.

    Scott Zimmerman, President,

  • Geralyn

    Great article. I agree completely with Brenna. It's relevant interaction that's missing in a lot of what's being pushed out. I see a lot of press releases that in my view don't really encourage interaction - just another outlet for spam. Happy to hear an alternative viewpoint on this.

  • David Lavenda

    Wendy, in the words of Paul Simon, "one man's ceiling is another man's floor." I agree with you that what interests one person, won't interest someone else. That is part of the allure of social networks. Everyone can participate and find people with similar interests. As I wrote, the one element that in my opinion is strictly verboten, is eavesdropping and intrusion by commercial entities who are methodically mining the sociosphere to cash in. That is clearly inappropriate behavior.

  • Wendy Peters

    "I'm making a cheesecake" is an interesting fact to some people. If I saw that I'd be inclined to ask "What kind?" Especially if I were a cream cheese brand. People live vicariously through the actions of others. How many times have you asked somebody what they did over the weekend? On their vacation? Or over the course of their work day? It's the things we DO that make us interesting and connect us with other individuals.

    I think you've hit this one well. 'Socially acceptable behaviour' is a requirement to engaging people in social media. If you're pushing spam on them, you're not interacting, it's therefore not social media. It's just spam.

  • David Lavenda

    Gary, I fully agree that people are posting nonsense on their social networks and it is completely uninteresting. It's a total waste of bits and a huge turnoff. However, I don't think that excuses inappropriate behavior on the part of companies who seek to invade our "private" discussions with obtrusive advertising. That's worse than being boring and uninteresting. That's just plain rude. If the networks continue to encourage it, and companies continue to practice it, I think people will go elsewhere to continue their conversations, rather than fight the noise.

  • Gary Hickman

    For the life of me, I don't get why you would feel the need to twitter "I'm making a cheesecake". If you don't want to be bothered with the pushers of brand x cheese cake, why not keep your mundane activities to yourself, or if you really must talk to someone about it, emails and cell phones still work wonderfully.Same goes for facebook. I'm so tired of people sending crap on facebook telling me that they are going shopping now, or junior just took a dump. Who cares people!

  • Brenna DeLeo

    Good rules. I agree, I'm afraid that more and more people/companies are missing the point of SOCIAL media. Too many are using it to broadcast, when the point is to listen, respond and interact.