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Recently, I read in the Romance Writers of America (RWA) newsletter that writers should strive to be neutral on social media about "controversial topics." The article listed everything from gay marriage to religion to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

To say that the newsletter and the RWA experienced a backlash would be an understatement. Writers from different corners of social media platforms spoke up, citing that they were non-neutral in their creations. To be neutral was to deny themselves (whether gay, female, or person of color) self-expression in the name of a book sale.

What was more interesting was how many authors and active social media users talked about gaining more followers by being—if not deliberately controversial—at least authentic. Others spoke about how their presence on social media was less about direct translations to book sales and more about engaging with readers and making connections with other people in the industry.

I don't think that neutrality is remotely helpful in generating a positive following on social media. Here's why.

If you're on social media with a goal of selling stuff, stop

Being the company on social media that is always trying to sell its goods is like being at the lawyer with a pocket full of business cards that shows up to a dinner party. It's tacky, and it will not help you.

Look over your last few posts on social media. Is there anything there that's new, original, different, or are you just posting the same sales and the same information over and over?

Social media is about real, honest connections

Sometimes, that fact seems strange to people who bought their first smartphone in their 20s or 30s (or older), but people really do make friends and build relationships with people they will never meet in person.

To succeed at social media, you need to build these connections and relationships with fans.

So how do I do that?

Start by figuring out who it is that you're interacting with on social media. That audience may be a very different one than your overall customer profile. These people may skew younger (Twitter and Tumblr) or older (Facebook and Instagram) than your average customer. Depending on how many followers you have, you may be able to look at their profiles to start gathering information, or you could conduct a poll to try and get more information.

Next, you need to understand what your customers need. Hint: It's probably not just an announcement about what sale you're running today.

For example, look at the author John Scalzi. As one of the more successful authors of popular science fiction this decade, Scalzi maintains both a blog and a very active Twitter account. However, if you peruse recent posts, Scalzi almost never talks about his writing. He talks about events in the science fiction and fantasy publishing industries, social justice and sometimes world events. He occasionally talks about his family, and more often, his pets and computers.

Some Twitter users follow Scalzi entirely because of what he tweets but have no idea that he's a writer. He mentions when he has a new book out, but it's a very casual mention for a few days and never in a way that seems to insist fans go out and purchase it. He just reminds followers that his new book is available if they're interested. These users follow Scalzi because they find him smart, entertaining, and engaging. And not at all because he's neutral.

But how do I get people on social media to engage with me when I sell a thing?

Talk around your product instead of talking about your product. If you're an author, start talking about other books you're reading. Talk about your favorite authors. See whether you can interview an author. Give away an Amazon gift certificate to the 50th, 100th, 500th person to like your Facebook page. Start a conversation about a book you loved or hated.

And then, when your book is coming out, mention it. Don't shout about it, say, "If you love me, you'll buy this," just let people know your book is out there.

The process is absolutely the same with any other industry. Assume that people are interested in your company because they like things that you like.

If you make eco-friendly LED light bulbs, share articles about wind power and solar panels and how Burlington, Vermont became the first American town to run on renewable energy. If you are a masseuse building up your client base, share surveys about how stressed Americans are, how deep tissue pressure releases relaxation, and invite customers to share stories about their awkward massage moments.

Once you have your followers' attention, then mention a sale, or a coupon, or a special discount. Then go back to sharing information rather than trying to sell things.

In general, experts recommend that one in 10 posts be about you or your company; the other nine should have to do with the industry and the customer.

* * *

When you shift your focus from making sales to making connections, you realize the Internet has completely changed the economy as well as how customers interact with businesses. You can either use that to your advantage... or resign yourself to slow and gradual irrelevance.

The good news is that it's your choice.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Margarita Hakobyan

Margarita Hakobyan is founder and CEO of MoversCorp.com, an online marketplace of local moving companies and storage facilities.

LinkedIn: Margarita Hakobyan