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9 ways to lose friends and alienate people in social media

9 ways to lose friends and alienate people in social media Kent Lewis

In 1936, Dale Carnegie published his seminal book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Unfortunately, too few brands are following Carnegie's timeless advice when engaging in social media. Rather, they're ignoring tried-and-true communication principles -- simple but brilliant ideas such as "give honest and sincere appreciation." As such, many companies are at risk of turning off their followers and pushing away the people on whom their survival depends.

I've written extensively on best business practices in social media for iMedia Connection in the past, but I've never dealt with anything resembling "worst practices." Always up for a challenge, I tackled the subject with vim and vigor. As it turns out, there are plenty of examples out there of brands that have gone down the wrong path with their social media interactions. 

Based on my experience and research, I've organized a comprehensive list of "social media worst practices" into nine basic categories: philosophy, platform optimization, voice, content, generosity, velocity, administration, training, and commitment. For each category, I'll provide a bit of context with highlights, resource articles, and real-world examples. So without further ado, let's look at the nine most common ways that brands are losing friends and alienating people in social media.

I learned early in my digital marketing career that a brand must create and live by a philosophy that is true to its mission and vision. Back in 1998, I was working with a global brand that externally communicated a desire to connect with its young constituents, while in the background, our agency was being asked to attack those very same people via "old school' social media platforms like chat rooms, bulletin boards, and discussion lists. The dissonance troubled me, and ultimately the campaign failed.

Since then, technology has advanced along with the enlightenment of consumers and brands about the power of social media. That said, many corporations still don't "get it" and tend to repeat the same egregious errors. If your brand is in the early stages of building its social media strategies, consider reading "Top social media platforms for businesses" and "6 social media platforms at a glance," as they provide foundational insights. For the rest of you, here is a short list of the most common philosophical mistakes that tend to alienate consumers:

  • Being overly self-promotional or salesy (pushing only products and services)

  • Not segmenting content by audience or platform (this is especially true in B2B)

  • Taking a highly defensive or seemingly non-empathetic approach to all messaging

  • Embracing an edgy or insensitive approach in order to gain visibility (PR stunts)

Two excellent examples of how to alienate your constituents include Kenneth Cole and Bing. In both cases, the brands made tasteless and insensitive posts on Twitter, hoping to generate awareness and increase revenue at the expense of others. I believe the posts below speak for themselves, but I've linked to related articles above, which provide additional context:

One way to disappoint fans is to spend too little time creating a remarkable and highly visible presence in social media. If your customers do not feel your brand is accurately portrayed in social, they might walk (assuming they can find you in the first place).

Unfortunately, some of the world's largest brands have enthusiastic fans who create "fan pages" and profiles that are not an ideal reflection of the company and make the official profiles more difficult to find. Worst case: Constituents accidentally friend or follow a fake profile that is actually a parody and can create reputation management issues of its own (i.e., @BPGlobalPR). Below is a list of additional oversights that brands make that can lead to customer loss:

  • Not customizing or optimizing platform based on features, capabilities, and audience

  • Improperly developing, managing, or marketing contests or promotions

  • Failing to set up monitoring tools and respond to questions or comments in a timely manner

  • Not creating or tracking key performance metrics to optimize campaign effectiveness

For an example of what can be done to customize a presence in social media, check out my article "Advanced LinkedIn strategies for marketers." For an example of how not to respond to a reputation crisis on social media, recall the "United Breaks Guitars" YouTube fiasco.

On a more positive note, I would like to share an example of how technical issues with a Facebook contest could have derailed a credit union, but didn't. Advantis Credit Union recently hosted an iPad giveaway on Facebook. Immediately after a promotional email was sent out, Facebook experienced API issues, and users couldn't enter to contest. They were frustrated and posting on the company's wall. Thanks to timely monitoring, Advantis identified and addressed the problem, keeping users informed about what was happening. In the end, the fans appreciated the proactive outreach and felt better about the brand.

Even if a majority of brands foster a "socially appropriate" philosophy and have visible, customized social media profiles, they typically fall short when developing a unique voice. With the adoption of social management platforms, low-wage internal talent, or overpaid external agencies aggressively marketing social media prowess, companies are falling prey to the path of least resistance and creating robotic, useless, annoying content that alienates constituents. Below are a few of the most common offenses by brands in terms of voice:

  • Using robots (automation), outsourced team (lack of understanding of brand, products, and services) or interns (lack of understanding of social media in a business context) to create content

  • Not creating or maintaining a consistent voice (with multiple contributors, this can be an issue)

  • Cross-posting the same content to multiple profiles regularly (over-syndication)

  • Adopting a defensive, inauthentic, irreverent, or insensitive tone

A little disclosure regarding my feelings about outsourcing social media (to any non-full-time employees): Don't do it. Read my blog on the subject, "5 Reasons for Brands not to Outsource Social Media Marketing," for more clarity regarding the potential dangers. A perfect example of why not to outsource (and there are many), read about the Chrysler F-bomb incident.

There is hope, however. Many brands are taking the correct approach to managing and identifying profile contributors. One example is The Nature Conservancy, which identifies the six primary contributors to its Twitter account. This is particularly powerful when profiles are customer-service focused, as tech support team members at Cox Communications of Arizona are doing by signing each tweet so everyone knows which individual support person responded.

In the world of search and social, content is still king. In that metaphor, bad content is treason punishable by death. Even if a company develops a philosophy and voice consistent with its brand, the quality, timeliness, and context of the content can overshadow even the most thoughtful social strategy. Below are just a few examples of content missteps: 

  • Consistently providing content perceived as low-value by constituents (see Philosophy)

  • Failing to create original content (only retweeting or sharing others' content)

  • Updating too infrequently (or frequently; see Velocity)

  • Posting poorly timed messages and promotional materials

  • Not including helpful reference points (i.e., hashtags, URLs, profile links)

Too often, social media managers struggle to justify their value to the rest of the company, whether it's due to a lack of resources, metrics, experience, or enthusiasm. That being said, developing social media content can be relatively cost-effective. For those looking to get beyond retweets and comments, read my article, "How to Become a Social Media Guru in 3 Easy Steps."

One example of how to give your brand a black eye in social media is Microsoft's untimely promotion of the Amy Winehouse "Back to Black" album immediately after her death. Consumers found this particularly tasteless, even if it wasn't intentional.

While some readers might feel generosity in social media is a component of philosophy, I believe it deserves a dedicated spot on the list. From my experience, stingy brands are likely to turn off even their biggest fans, especially when the behavior is inconsistent with their core values. If you believe in the "Pay it Forward" philosophy, you'll do well when following the practice in social media.

Essentially, the more generous you are to others, the more likely they are to reciprocate. Since retweets, "likes," and shares are considered strong social signals by social platforms and brands alike, why not share the love and get the love in return? Here are a few additional thoughts on how to alienate your fans and followers by not paying it forward:

  • Not reciprocating "likes," follows, or mentions by fans

  • Failing to retweet or share content from constituents or other industry experts

  • Not thanking fans for their comments, input, and support (generally or specifically)

While I'm sure there are more than a handful of brands engaged in social media that could be considered stingy with their love, I figured it would be more valuable to show an example of a brand doing it right. In fact, Provenance Hotels' Hotel Max in Seattle built its social strategy around generosity and engaging dialogue. Notice in the screenshot below that nearly every tweet is a comment or response to a follower, fan, or someone else worthy of mentioning. Provenance's social media efforts have not only won the property two SoMe Awards, but it has also been fruitful in generating revenue in the form of online bookings every month.

Research demonstrates that multi-tasking is extremely inefficient, yet we continue to value it in employees (particularly when managing social media). That said, it's human nature (and more efficient) to batch activities, including updates. The downside to that approach is twofold: Fans can get overwhelmed by a large number of updates in a short period of time (particularly on Twitter), and they are equally missing out if those batched updates occurred when they were not actively following the brand at that moment.

There are a few options when it comes to modulating updates for maximum impact and minimal blowback:

  • Prepare status updates once or twice a day (week or month), but schedule them at regular (or irregular) intervals (using HootSuite, Twuffer, or an equivalent tool).

  • For important status updates (contests, events, and major news) consider posting two to four times throughout an appropriate period (daily, weekly, or monthly), staggered at different times to accommodate different audiences and time zones.

  • For bonus points, use unique tracking URLs or shorteners for each post so you can see what times (or variations of posts) generate the most interest.

One of the best examples I have for bad velocity modulation of status updates is the Philadelphia Flyers on Facebook. One of my coworkers is a huge Flyers fan and decided to "like" them on Facebook. He quickly noticed the Flyers' social media team was updating the Facebook status on its wall every 30-60 seconds, providing a running commentary on the games. It flooded my coworker's wall, so he "unliked" within minutes. A more elegant solution would have been to create a dedicated tab on Facebook to live game commentary instead of drowning the wall with status updates.

Perhaps the least sexy of these nine ways to alienate fans is in the detail. It's not uncommon for brands to get excited about social media and for early adopters to jump in with both feet, riding the wave of excitement. Unfortunately, the tradeoff is that the company has failed to put key infrastructure in place to ensure the social program has viability and longevity. Below are the most common oversights made by brands on the operational side of social media marketing:

  • Providing inadequate privacy policy and legal disclaimer information for fans and followers

  • Improperly securing social profiles or any customer or company data related to those profiles and platforms (particularly when contests and commerce are involved)

  • Failing to properly secure profiles at corporate level (leaving exposure when employees have access or leave -- happily or otherwise)

I've written about the liability side of social media platform security in the past in "How Social Media Networks Facilitate Identity Theft and Fraud" but I'm certainly not the only one to bring this issue to the limelight. In late July, Pfizer's Facebook page was compromised via an employee's computer. And unfortunately, there are other examples of bad employee behavior on social media, including a former intern for Marc Jacobs who updated Twitter with negative comments about his employer before leaving the company. These issues not only alienate customers, but they can create much larger online reputation management issues.

Speaking of inappropriate employee behavior, one of the biggest challenges with social media is developing sufficient resources and bandwidth to have a meaningful presence over time. The downside is that companies frequently omit or under-invest in proper social media training for employees, which can lead to unhappy customers and employees. Here are a few additional pitfalls when taking shortcuts on training:

  • Failing to develop, communicate, and manage formalized social media guidelines for employees (and partners and vendors as appropriate)

  • Not using social management tools that offer controls and admin oversight of outbound messaging (HootSuite, TweetDeck, and CoTweet)

  • Failing to involve key members of the organization in the social media guideline development or oversight, including HR, legal, sales, and marketing departments

You know by now my feelings about outsourcing social media management to consultants or agencies. Fortunately, one of the easiest solutions is to train existing employees in-house, for which there are books and workshops (and even agencies). As mentioned earlier in the context of BlogWell, there is an excellent resource already available to larger brands engaged in social media: SocialMedia.org. For more background on this specific topic, ready my summary from BlogWell: "Andy Sernovitz on Social Media Ethics."

I believe training is such a crucial element of any successful social media program that I'm providing two examples. The first is American Red Cross, for its Chrysler-like gaff involving an employee accidentally posting a personal tweet to the corporate account. Better rules, training, and closer monitoring might have avoided this issue, but on the plus side, it was a boon for Dogfish Head beer.

The second example relates to what can be done when training is well-planned and executed. In this case, the team at Lithia Motors' BMW Portland (formerly Rasmussen BMW) struggled with the quality, frequency, and professionalism of posts by untrained employees. BMW Portland tasked search and social media marketing agency Formic Media with developing an overall social strategy, then training the internal team to implement, manage, and measure against it. Formic started the process by identifying representatives from each department (i.e., sales, parts, and service) to evangelize their respective teams. Next, it provided guidelines, best practices, a content calendar, and training on relevant social platforms for optimal management and measurement. The net result was that the owners were pleased with the resulting response from customers.

Last but not least, the best way to alienate your fans and followers is to half-ass your way through a long-term social media engagement. Brands that starve social media wonder why it's not "working" for them. Below are just a few examples of what that can look like:

  • Committing insufficient resources from across the company, particularly people and technology, to initiate or manage social strategies

  • Inconsistent dedication over time to adequately monitor and engage customers, prospects, and partners via social

  • Constant and inconsistent change in the program: employee turnover, strategic direction, supporting tactics, or modifying any of the other eight "ways" we've identified here

The most common justification for lackluster commitment to social media initiatives is a lack of budget. This, of course, is a common argument for proper funding of any programs. The unique benefit of social media is that the barriers of entry from a time and technology standpoint are minimal and the rewards are relatively high. I wrote an article for those of you struggling to obtain adequate funding titled "3 Effective Strategies for Securing Digital Marketing Budgets." (Thank me later.)

For my final example, I'd like to tap Mayo Clinic on Facebook. The organization demonstrates the need for constant and consistent monitoring of social profiles to identify issues and opportunities before they spiral out of control. In this case, one of its radiologists was accused of making inappropriate remarks in a communication to Latvia's Foreign Minister. Due to quick thinking and decisive action, Mayo was able to avert a larger crisis (the news did not hit mainstream media) and built (or at least maintained) trust with its fans.

During my research into this topic, one of the first resources I came across was a presentation by David Griner and Dave Peck, "FAIL: Social Media Disasters & What We Can Learn From Them." The presentation offers excellent real-world examples of social media failures by brands. They even offered a few excellent takeaways:

  • Social media disasters can strike even when you're not marketing in social media.

  • Clarify how the poor decision was reached when rectifying the situation.

  • Learn from the mistake and create safeguards.

  • Give your audience an earnest reason to connect and see the value of your brand.

  • Don't let criticism grind your marketing to a halt.

Another excellent resource for brands looking to avoid making critical mistakes in social media is the case studies featured at the nationwide conference series, BlogWell. This summer, I attended BlogWell Seattle, where big brands shared first-hand social media case studies. I believe they exemplify best practices and should be considered an excellent resource:

Timeless social strategies
With so many timely examples of worst practices to guide your social media efforts, it's easy to miss the obvious: Dale Carnegie had it right all along in "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Although his book was written 70 years before social media became a part of our culture and corporate marketing strategies, his advice is timeless and spot on. I've pulled out nine of his most relevant tips for you to consider before implementing or overhauling your existing social media strategies.

  • Don't criticize, condemn, or complain.

  • Give honest and sincere appreciation.

  • Arouse in the other person an eager want.

  • Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

  • The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.

  • Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say, "You're wrong."

  • If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

  • Dramatize your ideas.

  • Throw down a challenge.

I challenge you to map your social media marketing strategies to the Carnegie/Lewis methodology and watch in amazement as your fans and followers love you for it.

Kent Lewis is president and founder of Anvil Media, a search engine marketing agency based in Portland, Ore.

On Twitter? Follow Lewis at @kentjlewis. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Homepage art sourced from: iStockphoto 

With a background in integrated marketing, Lewis left a public relations agency in 1996 to start his career in search engine marketing. Since then, he’s helped grow businesses by connecting his clients with their constituents via the...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Jon Herman

2011, October 05

@Kent, this is one of the most oddly written articles. The content of the article is great and I can say I truly agree with all of it. But when looking at your twitter account, you only seem to follow 11 people and don't appear all that "social" except to feed content from others.

Just trying to understand how your POV on your actions vs. some very strong statements against others?

Commenter: Spencer Broome

2011, October 05

Agree with Nick.

Commenter: Nick Stamoulis

2011, October 05

I can't stand companies that use their Facebook page or Twitter account as another ad space. That's not the point! While there is nothing wrong with a promotional message every now and again, it should never be the bulk of your messages.