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Social Media Mistakes (and Solutions)

by TJ Barranger (TJ on Google+)

In addition to branding and publicity services, small businesses and non-profits periodically seek out my advice on social media strategy. While every case is unique, there are (in my opinion) some common—and avoidable—mistakes that many small businesses make. In this series, I will discuss five of these mistakes, in order of significance:

and offer some potential solutions you can implement on your own, or with the help of a consultant.

Mistake # 3: Trolling/Spamming

Building up your social network can be a tedious job, especially if you're just getting started on social media, or if you have a very limited budget for sponsored advertising. One of the ways you build your network is by participating in discussions that are relevant to your brand. Again, social media is social. It's perfectly acceptable for businesses—even competitors—to interact with one another. Of course, the devil is always in the details. So in this article, I specifically want to address the manner in which your business engages in discussion with other brands and organizations via social media.

What Is Trolling?

Trolling is the deliberate act of disrupting an online discussion by making inflammatory statements. Most internet trolls are individuals who prefer to lurk on online forums and lure unsuspecting users into impassioned arguments (hence the term troll), often over controversial topics. Fortunately, only a very slim minority of small brands fit this description. However, even if your intent is not to disrupt a discussion, you certainly do not want to appear to be engaged in trolling.

What Is Spamming?

Spamming is the act of sending unsolicited commercial messages and advertising to a broad and indiscriminately chosen audience. It is the internet equivalent of junk mail. While the term was once reserved to describe unsolicited commercial e-mails, social media spamming has become commonplace. Usually, it's the act of a well-intentioned but misguided small business owner who is desperate to gain some attention and build a following by posting commercial messages on popular social media pages.

Since spamming is more common (and tolerable) than trolling, I'll address this topic first, again using the hypothetical examples from my earlier articles:

Let's play Is It Spam? We'll start with Acme paving...

Acme needs to supplement its municipal work with more commercial paving contracts from large real estate development firms. An out-of-state developer is planning to build a shopping mall in the area, and Acme wants to bid. Acme's business development manager has been busy writing letters and making phone calls to introduce himself and his company to this potential client. He asks the PR department and the social media team to support his efforts. The team comes up with a case study on Acme's website detailing a similar project from a few years ago.

Scenario #1 is very clearly spam. Acme is sending a blatantly commercial message that doesn't support or advance the discussion about the new mall. And tagging a bunch of other brands in the tweet is a desperate cry for attention.

Scenario #2 is spam-free. First, Acme retweets the developer's press release without commentary, then sends a tweet of its own citing some public concerns that arise every time a new construction project is announced, along with a link to a page detailing how they've addressed these concerns in the past. This encourages public discussion on the topic, and should help raise Acme's visibility.

Scenario #3 resides in the gray area. Technically, it isn't spam. Yes, it is an unsolicited reply, but Twitter is the kind of network where replies and opinions fly around rather freely. Also, because the tweet is a direct reply with the @ tag at the very beginning, this tweet is only visible to followers of Acme and the developer, not the entire network. While it doesn't do much to advance or encourage discussion, and it may not get beyond the desk of the developer's social media manager, it's relatively harmless.

Next, let's examine some scenarios for Cathy's Café...

In my , Cathy made the best of a bad situation, and performed a public service when an international tragedy threatened to wipe the grand opening of her new reading room off the local news radar. Now that things are fairly quiet again on social media, she wants to generate some buzz for her live music night this Friday. She logs on to Facebook as her company page, and looks for opportunities to engage.

In Scenario #1, Cathy posts directly to another Facebook page. However, that page serves as a community resource for the kind of content that Cathy is sharing, and the page admin has invited users to post their announcements. So her content is not unsolicited, and it's relevant to the audience. On the down side, third-party posts to Facebook pages don't get much visibility, so her message won't be seen unless the Community Pulse page admin reposts it. So while it isn't an awesome social media strategy, it certainly isn't spam.

Scenario #2 is an awesome social media move, in my opinion. Here, Cathy has zeroed in on a discussion that relates perfectly to her upcoming event, and she speaks directly to people who are interested in engaging on that very topic. She adds value to the discussion by tagging and complimenting the entertainer she booked, and by adding that her pastry ingredients are locally grown. She makes it easy for people to share her news by setting up a Facebook event and providing a link. Because this is a discussion thread on a status update, most users who like, comment, or share the thread will also receive a notification when Cathy posts her comment.

Scenario #3 sure looks an awful lot like spam. First of all, Cathy has tag-bombed a bunch of pages. They all relate to her business in some vague way, but do all of these pages welcome third party posts? Even if they do, this audience is way too broad for a local live music announcement. And Cathy hasn't provided any information of substantial value. Who's playing on Friday? What are the new menu items? What does this have to do with the fair trade coffee co-op's official Facebook page? Sorry, Cathy. This one doesn't pass the smell test.

Now, a brief word on trolling, even though it's rare for brands.

, after an earthquake destroyed an overseas textile factory that was rumored to employ forced child labor, Cathy posted a blunt condemnation of forced labor on the café's Facebook page, and urged her followers to look for the fair trade seal whenever they buy coffee. This update is perfectly fine; even though the incident had nothing to do with the coffee industry, the message goes hand-in-hand with her company philosophy. Let's look at an example that I feel constitutes trolling...

Cathy is way out of line. She publicly condemns a company that 1) had nothing to do with the incident, and 2) is pledging support for the victims. Moreover, she implicates all of the company's customers in her accusation, and demonizes them for the crime of drinking conventional coffee. This starts a heated exchange among brand loyalists, and distracts from the intent of the post, which was to raise funds for earthquake relief. This is trolling, plain and simple.

Regardless of whether you agree with her political philosophy, Cathy's incendiary comments and her writing tone are bad PR. And she puts the manager of the coffee manufacturer's page in a difficult position, which relates to my next topic of discussion: Devaluing User Engagement.


TJ Barranger is a branding and publicity consultant in the Baltimore, Maryland area with a background in business communications and online content management. He specializes in assisting small business and non-profit clients. Agree/disagree with this article? Share your comments via e-mail: