“How can my organization interact with customers in social networks without seeming too commercial?”
I’ve had many discussions with organizations nervous about this issue. They are justifiably fraid of “astroturfing” * – the practice of participating, as a commercial entity, in a non-commercial space like a social network, and violating the social norms there. There have been many very public examples of astroturfing, and even more theories thrown around of how to prevent it. Unfortunately, many of the theories and methods are either too complicated to use practically, or so simplistic that they don’t fully address the problem.
If you agree with the premise from my previous post that social media spaces have social dynamics that are similar to those of small towns like Mayberry, then we might also extend this analogy to the issue of astroturfing.
When engaging, as a commercial entity, in social networks, pretend you’re a Mayberry business owner attending a cocktail party and you’ll do just fine.
Here’s why. In highly-connected, highly-social places like small towns, there is no big separation between one’s work and personal life. If you are a doctor or a store owner, everyone in town knows you’re a doctor or a store owner, whether you’re in the office or at a party. So there will be times when your personal life will be discussed with a patient or a customer at your place of business, and there will be times when your work will be discussed with a patient or a customer at a social event – like a cocktail party. The trick is to know your context and the people to whom you are talking, so that you know what is appropriate where.
If, for example, you are a Mayberry store owner who is attending a cocktail party at a friend’s house, the worst thing you can do is to start regailing everyone around the punchbowl with your canned marketing message and news of your latest discounts. Perhaps nothing would get you ushered to the door faster. It is a social occasion. If, on the other hand, the topic happens to come up in the course of a genuine conversation, no one would deem it inappropriate to talk a little bit about what your store is doing. You might even get the party attendees into a conversation about what they think of your store. But that commercial cart can’t come before the social horse. You’ve got to show that you care – and i would say that you have to really care about the party before you care about your business. Most people are pretty adept in social contexts at detecting false cues.
So if we treat our organizational efforts to engage customers in social spaces like a Mayberry cocktail party, here are a few principles to live by in social media:
- Feel free to jump into social spaces, but only with full-disclosure of your day job. It’s fine to go to a party as a store owner, but in social contexts, people want to know both sides of you so that it doesn’t seem strange when you mention your store.
- Make sure you really care about the social community. It’s pretty hard to fake this, so don’t try. Find a way for your organization to really care about the communities it reaches out to, or better yet..
- Reach out to communities your organization already cares about. If you’re new to Mayberry and you are an avid swing dancer, don’t start by attending a party where everyone is waltzing just because you think they are your “target demographic.” Start with your natural community. Before embarking on a social media campaign, find out if your employees are already involved in some communities, and consider ways you might contribute to those communities without pushing your message.
- Get invited back. There is no magic quotient to this. If you are polite, engaged, and add something to the party, people will invite you back. Repeat invitations to a community are gold in social media marketing.
* Astroturfing refers to the act of trying a start a fake grass-roots movement.
Photo by: Takomabibelot