Tread Carefully With Social Networking in E-mail

  |  April 15, 2010   |  Comments

Evaluating social networking tools and techniques reveals significant risks for the unwary but valuable opportunities for those who are careful and have clear objectives.

My columns, so far, about social networking have been somewhat negative. The main reason for this is because the hype often outweighs the measured value of social networking. However, that isn't to say that there isn't and never will be value in a solid social networking strategy, but rather that jumping on a bandwagon is a poor substitute for strategy.

In recent weeks, I've continued investigating and evaluating social networking tools and techniques as they relate to e-mail. There are some significant risks for the unwary and some valuable opportunities for those who are clear about their objectives and careful in their approach.

A simple synergy between e-mail and social networking is the "share with your network" (SWYN) capability offered by most e-mail marketing platforms. Clearly, there are many areas in which the ability to increase the reach of your messaging to those not on your list can be valuable.

Many people in the industry, myself included, suspect "share with your network" will essentially replace the "forward to a friend" systems that pass e-mails on through e-mail. However, there are some important things to take into account when deciding what content should be made shareable through social networks, who should be offered the opportunity to share that content, and how that content should be made available.

E-mails Don't (Directly) Work in Social

The first, and perhaps most important, thing to remember is that it's not as simple as having your subscribers post your e-mails to their Facebook Pages or Twitter feeds. Elements of e-mail simply aren't appropriate on a social networking system. These include:

  • "Click here to view this e-mail on the Web" - they're already viewing it on the Web.

  • "Please add us to your address book" - what address should they add and to which address book?

  • Unsubscribe or even worse, preference center links - no one wants to be unsubscribed by their followers.

  • Personalization data - points or account balances, subscriber-specific offers, etc., shouldn't be made public and have no relevance for anyone but the original recipient.

Unfortunately, there are live examples of the above from many major brands and major industry players. In the most egregious cases, I've had the capability to view, and even alter, the complete preference profile of people I don't even know.

Therefore, it's important to create content that's suitable for sharing and ensure that your SWYN application shares this content. It may be easier to just have your system share the original e-mail, but the privacy and security of your list, as well as the recipient experience, dictates that you put in the extra effort to create social-ready content.

Who Gets to Share Matters

Sharing can be a double-edged sword. Sharers get to comment on what they're sharing and not all sharers are created equal. The last thing you want is your latest message tweeted and re-tweeted as:

"Look at the latest rip-off spam from yourco! #yourcompanysucks"

While who shares what can be helpful in identifying your most loyal and influential recipients, it's important to have some idea who your most, and least, engaged recipients are before you start. Then begin by offering only the more engaged recipients the opportunity to share.

Work Through the Experience

In evaluating the various offerings in this area, I've found that the user experience of sharing content and accessing shared content is quite variable. I've seen all kinds, from systems that produce URLs for Twitter that are well over 70 characters long to those that instead of using Facebook's URL sharing, produce obtuse and confusing status updates. Given the poor experience that I've seen, I suspect the marketers either didn't realize how bad it was or they were so driven to use social that they ignored it.

No matter what system you're using, you should go through the experience. Try it both as a sharer and a sharee. Make sure that the experience you're offering your recipients meets your standards and adds value to the experience; if not, don't include it.

Social networking as a marketing medium is still in the earliest stages. No one has all the answers yet and the unexpected can happen, both the positive and the negative.

For this reason, enabling social sharing can't be an unmanned "lights-off" tactic. It's important to monitor what's going on - who is sharing what, what is the experience, and how it's being received. If it's all going wrong, you need to respond and respond quickly.

As we gain experience with social networking, the social mores, as well as what works and what doesn't, will change and evolve. Right now, don't trust anyone who claims they have all the answers or step-by-step instructions on social networking success. Tread carefully, watch closely, and test, test, and test again.

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Derek Harding

Derek is the managing director of J-Labs, Javelin Marketing Group's technology skunkworks, a role that draws on his 20 years of experience and leadership in the fields of marketing and technology. A British expatriate based in Seattle, Washington, Derek is perhaps better known as the founder and technologist behind Innovyx, one of the first email service providers later acquired by the Omnicom Group. An industry veteran and thought-leader, Derek is a regular expert author, contributor, conference speaker, and takes an active role in a number of industry and trade groups.

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