One Rule with Social Media and Social Networking: Don't Be Creepy.

I’m always amazed how a wonderful and benign technology can be turned to creepy or downright evil uses. What is it about the profit motive that makes so many people check their ethics at the door? It seems so shortsighted.

I was lucky to be “there” at the beginning of the PC revolution and the beginnings of the Internet. Both were exciting times when the promise of new technologies seemed boundless. Then, it got real. And by “real” I mean turned ugly. Viruses and spam, Internet scams and phishing, rampant porn and ultra-violent video games. Makes me want to say the digital equivalent of “Hey you kids! Get off my lawn!” only the kids are businesses and the lawn is everything digital.

And here we are at another exciting time in technology history. Social media and social networking are allowing us to share the moments – both big and small – of our lives with friends. We can create business relationships more easily and broadcast our messages to legions of willing listeners at very little cost. New technologies help us to interact with our co-workers and customers in deeper and more meaningful ways, even at a distance. Wow.

But all is not unicorns and rainbows. I keep seeing more creepiness invade the otherwise bucolic social scene. Sure, there have always been flamers and trolls; we expect some bad behavior from individuals and know how to deal with them as a community (hint: shunning works well). No, these are businesses again. I want to assume it is because they don’t know better and need some guidance. So, to paraphrase the Grateful Dead “My job is to shed light, and not to master.” Here is my list of legitimate uses of social media and social networking and uses that are pretty wrong.

Legit uses of social media for business

  • Reach out to customers who want them to. Customers do want to know about products and services that matter to them. Social media makes it easy to keep customers informed. Social media is better at this than e-mail since you can simply unfollow a company you no longer care about. Try and get off an e-mail list instead. This is where having an independent middleman such as Twitter is an advantage.
  • Listen for what customers and employees have to say. The first step in understanding is listening. Or so my wife tells me. To give customers and employees what they want or, better yet what they want but don’t know they want, listening is important. Social media and social network provides so much raw, unfettered information about what people are saying and feeling. The hard part is organizing and analyzing it. It’s worth the effort given how much vital information is just out there for the taking.
  • Provide a more engaging environment. Shopping is often a dull experience. It’s all very transactional. But that’s not how people like to buy. Buying is best when it's an emotional experience as much as a rational one. A customer needs to be completely engaged. Their senses need to be engaged, their emotions need to be engaged, and their intellect needs to be engaged. Social networking and social media provide that by creating a sense of community – connections with other human beings – that takes us deeper on all three dimensions. Social networking is special in that it provides us what psychologists call Social Proof. With Social Proof, we can make purchase decisions without feeling bad about them. Social communities make that easy to obtain. Feeling good should be part of the purchase process.
  • Give customers a choice in how they communicate. Social media and social networking expand the ways that companies and people can communicate. Phone, e-mail, website, social media, and social networking are all fundamentally different mediums. This provides a choice in how we experience our interactions with each other. It makes us feel powerful which makes us enjoy the experience more.

Uses of social media and social networks that are unethical or just creepy.

And please don’t give me that old wag about a practice being okay because it’s legal. Legal is the minimum standard.

  • Spy on employees. And you wonder why people won’t work for your company. Spying on employees suggests that you think they are thieves or worse. My advice to my college age son has been that if a company asks for your Facebook login, tell them you no longer want to work there. It is inevitable that he won’t want to work there. Might as well head to the endgame.
  • Make employees use their social networking friends as marketing contacts for the company. I hear this from various software companies. There are now software platforms that tap into employees' private Facebook or Twitter accounts to mine leads. Now that’s just creepy. The disclaimer: “The employee will have to give permission of course.” No pressure there. Sure. Spamming your employees' friends and family because they feel afraid to say no is just lousy. Obviously some companies don’t care if their employees’ friends and families all hate them afterwards. Maybe if they have no lives they’ll work more.
  • Lie or misrepresent. This goes without saying. It’s not okay to lie in social media anymore than on a billboard.
  • Spam. Why do people think that spamming someone on Twitter is any different than spamming them in e-mail? It is okay to broadcast messages to whoever chooses to listen. It’s not okay to send “@” or direct messages to people you don’t know with links to your product. It’s especially wrong to do so when it’s a reply or retweet to someone’s own message. Hijacking someone’s tweets for obvious commercial reasons is deserving of its own circle of Hell.

So, as we approach the New Year (assuming the reports about Mayan calendars are wrong) make it your New Year’s resolution to not be scummy with social media and social networking. It’s not that hard.

Topics: Enterprise Mobility