Q&A: What Is and Isn’t Spam on Twitter?

Does your company run the risk of being a spammer on Twitter?

Web site builder Moonfruit apparently didn’t think it would when it ran a contest. It gave away one MacBook Pro a day over 10 days to someone who had sent a message on Twitter using the hash mark and keyword, #moonfruit. The contest was so popular that Moonfruit became a Twitter trending topic, meaning it was one of the top keywords being used in Twitter messages. When #moonfruit disappeared from trending topics, Moonfruit marketing director Wendy Tan White questioned whether Twitter considered its campaign spam — and asked what exactly constitutes Twitter spam.

In light of that case, ClickZ asked Omar Zaibak, author of the Blue Falcon Marketing blog, to answer these five questions about Twitter spam and what marketers can do to avoid getting labeled a spammer.

Q. How would you define “spam” on Twitter?

A. Any tweet that is highly irrelevant and useless to the user it is being sent to. This includes both the text within the tweet itself, and any webpages it may link to. Keep in mind what one user may consider spam, another may find quite useful.

Q. What are two to three things that a business — whether it’s a Fortune 500 or a small-to-medium sized one — should do to avoid being labeled a spammer on Twitter?

A. Businesses must understand why their customers and prospects follow them on Twitter. This is needed to consistently send tweets that are useful to their followers, and avoid being seen as spammy. So what are two things to avoid?

  • Avoid repetition. This includes tweeting the same or similar messages and links over and over. to a similar message, or linking to a specific webpage over and over. Repetition is often associated with spam. Keeping tweets unique, original, and useful to followers is the recommended strategy.
  • Avoid over exposure. Keep a balance between the tweets that promote your specific brand and products, and those that do not. Your followers can still find value in your tweets, even if they do not mention your company, products, or services. Just make sure they address the needs and interests of your followers.

Q. Are there innocuous mistakes someone can make that can backfire? If so, please walk through an example [real or hypothetical].

A. The biggest mistakes I see on Twitter is people following everyone they can, and following everyone that follows them. This happens to be the exact approach spammers take.

Keep your profile focused within a certain niche, and only follow people that are associated with that area. Your Twitter profile is a brand, and is shaped in part by who you follow and who is following you. If you are too loose in who you associate with, you will dilute what your profile stands for and could be viewed as a spammer.

An example of this is people using the Twitter Traffic Machine, which is an automated way of gaining followers and is appealing to new users. One of its main drawbacks is it automatically tweets repetitive messages advertising the tool to all your followers. Such tweets are a red flag for people who have used Twitter.

My recommendation is to build relationships naturally on Twitter, and to avoid a heavy dependence on using automatic tools to build up your list.

Q. Is there anything that Moonfruit, which ran the Macbook Pro laptop give away contest, could have done differently to avoid having #moonfruit (apparently) pulled from Twitter’s Trending Topics? Or do you think Twitter should have handled the incident differently?

A. Moonfruit’s campaign was highly successful and illustrated the potential of Twitter as a marketing platform. Their success was largely based on a clear understanding of their followers, and serving their needs in a clever and interactive way. I don’t consider this campaign spammy at all because it was very relevant and interesting to their followers. Could Twitter have handled this differently? Absolutely. The biggest issue I have is they abruptly removed the trending without the proper communication or feedback from both Moonfruit and its followers. However, the only way Twitter can evolve and mature as a platform is from learning from mistakes such as this.

Q. Twitter apparently just killed the accounts of an undetermined amount of spammers. Do you think that’s an effective move? What else do you think Twitter should be doing to combat spam?

A. Shutting down spam accounts is a step in the right direction, but does nothing to address spam in the long term. These spammers will simply create new profiles and start over again. This is akin to playing a game of whack-a-mole and is not effective.

Twitter should integrate a spam filter into its interface and APIs. A key advantage of this is empowering users themselves to decide what is and what is not spam. It is impractical to think that Twitter themselves can manually eliminate spam, there is simply too much for them to handle. The best solution I see is to give each user control of their spam settings, which has proven a very effective strategy for combating

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