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Five Rules on How Not to Use Social Media

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Social media is a very powerful thing, but like any powerful thing it can wreak havoc if misused or misdirected. First of all, always remember that social media is built around being social.

Being personable, honest, and entertaining is the best way to get users to interact with and about a business. You want users to trust and be entertained by your company, product, slogan, or marketing campaign, so then they turn around and do the rest of the buzz work for you.

The five rules that follow are fundamental to building users' trust, interesting them in your business, and getting them to talk among themselves about it.

Rule No. 1: Don't be dishonest

Most of us have been taken in by a false post a time or two. Discovering our credulity, we felt embarrassed and disappointed, and in response developed an acute awareness of duplicity: We are on the lookout for it, and we hate it when we see it. Overtly dishonest posts, comments, and reviews that are thinly disguised promotions... we don't like them and our customers don't either, so just don't go there.

The flipside of this distaste for fakery is that Internet users appreciate straightforwardness and honesty. So rather than respond to a negative review with fake positive reviews, publicly respond to the reviewer. Offer her discounts or a way to fix the problem, and you might win over a vocal customer who can potentially do far better work for you than any PR department or reputation manager.

Rule No. 2: Don't be annoying

Remember the chain emails of the early 2000s? Sure, those things went viral quickly, but nobody appreciated them. In the same way that you don't lob useless information or advertisements at your customers' inboxes, don't spam their Twitters with less-than-brilliant blog posts or promotions. If you focus on making your promotional content engaging, Internet users will do most of the promoting for you.

Look around to see what promotional techniques other companies are using to get users talking. A popular tactic these days, for instance, is to give away a free service. What service could your business give away that would likely interest those who subscribe to your Twitter feed or who have "Liked" you on Facebook? A generous promotion builds trust and loyalty with users, and can be a great way to get them talking about your site with friends.

Rule No. 3: Don't fight the nature of the Internet

Promoting a product or a service online is a tricky business, as piracy, theft, and sharing are rife. If your product or service is threatened by the openness of the Internet, then try a different approach.

Look at how the music industry has responded to the widespread availability of free music. Musicians have shifted their emphasis to live shows and even give their recorded music away for free, in an effort to gain a following and get their name and their sound out in the world. They depend on their fans to talk them up on social media and get people to their live shows.

Think about it: Many of the biggest companies online—including names like Facebook, Yahoo, Google, YouTube, and Pandora—offer their services for free. Is there a way you can make money by offering a free service? See where you can adapt your business to fit to this new model.

Rule No. 4: Don't think social media will solve all your problems

Social media is merely one tool for a business. A great one, to be sure: it can be used for advertising, for gathering customer feedback, for getting your brand out there, and more.

But it works best in concert with other efforts. Consumers will get tired of your products and services if you simply keep promoting the same ones. So encourage creativity in all parts of your business—product enhancements, new products, new ways to provide a service, new markets—then use social media to promote all that is fresh and exciting about your offerings.

Rule No. 5: Don't treat each new social media sensation as the Holy Grail

Of course, it's great to have as many promotional outlets as you can, but the risk is that you grab more than you can really handle and let one or two fall by the wayside, doing damage to your image as an active, living, customer-focused company.

The other danger is running after each social media fad of the moment. Focus on what works and then pick up new channels deliberatively, after you figure out how best to use each new one.

* * *

Remember that users of social media want to interact with people, and they all have their own motives and goals (whether that's to impress their friends or find a job). If business professionals and marketers can remember those two fundamentals, plus the social media Golden Rule—to treat their users as they themselves would like to be treated–they will be well on their way to making social media work for them.

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Randall Gates specializes in quality management systems and software. He frequently writes on those topics and currently blogs for CEBOS, a provider of electronic document management systems.

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  • by Graeme Mon Oct 22, 2012 via web

    Surely advising us not to be annoying or dishonest is a bit patronising to your readers?

  • by Nick Stamoulis Mon Oct 22, 2012 via web

    "But it works best in concert with other efforts."

    Agreed! Social media is not a magic bullet that solves all your problems over night. It's needs to be part of a larger strategy.

  • by Ann Druce Mon Oct 22, 2012 via web

    As with traditional marketing, any campaign is much stronger when it comprises several elements. And social media is, as you point out, only one element. But I suspect that small businesses will continue to look to social media for an answer to their marketing needs, simply because it is low cost and allows for a DIY approach. (And it is quite easy to fool yourself that it is free if you don't factor in the cost of the time you spend.)

  • by Shyam Ramamurthy Mon Oct 22, 2012 via web

    This is a nice summary of tips for increasing a company's quality social media presence. Many organizations and people treat social media as just a quick marketing boost and as such don't put enough time into its strategy. Therefore, the resulting message is either too subtle or too "annoying" as you put it. To help coordinate your social media strategy, successful content curation can be a great help. If you want to learn more about how to become a content curation rock star, download our eBook:

  • by Archele Thu Oct 25, 2012 via mobile

    Great points! Thanks for sharing. I think it's that "push-push-sale" mentality that still resonates with a lot of seasoned marketers that leads them to misuse or seek out unrealistic results from social media. I wrote a post entitled "Are people just scrolling over your social media content?" that covers some of the same grounds you have here, and I expand a little more on certain points. Feel free to check it out:

    Thanks again for sharing!

  • by Stephen Mon Oct 29, 2012 via web

    "Social media is merely one tool for a business." Business owners should repeat this as often as necessary. There is often a "Field of Dreams"
    approach to business social media in that if you build it, the followers, likes, dollars and lifetime customers will follow. If leveraged
    properly, this can certainly help accomplish that, but it must be worked in to an overall strategy.

    Great article Randy! Thanks for it. Here are four common mistakes many small business owners make when it comes to their company's social media:

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