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"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.