Can We Make Social Media Pay?

Recent discussions suggest that we’ve reached that point in the evolution of social media.

What point? The point at which social networks have become sufficiently popular for entrepreneurs to recognize the potential of this as a market space not just for showing advertisements in well-defined sidebars, but through which they can actively generate sales by using and participating in the social medium itself.

Just as email became a forum for unsolicited sales pitches (spam), web sites for graphical ads, online article comments for the positing of promotional links (comment spam) and blogs for paid reviews and promotions, now paid and sales-centric tweets are on the agenda.

In each of these cases, users felt a certain cynical inevitability as a communications channel that was previously free of promotions — a source of pure information — became yet another forum for selling. But it didn’t stop us using those vehicles.

In the interim, though, confusion and disenchantment reign on both sides of the equation. Today, just as some people ask the question, “Would I tweet if somebody paid me to?”, Aliza and others ask “When is ‘free’ too much of a good thing?” It seems that those of us using social media to brand-build and self-market face real challenges in making social media pay. Perhaps the likely solutions to these problems are as much about our approach and philosophy as they are about the practicalities of using social media to sell.

The Challenge

Nathan Hangen, in “Your Dream is Under Attack”, bemoans the fact that when entrepreneurs break with their self-built tradition of giving away free content by using the same channels to actively promote a product they want to sell, their followers get shirty.

While in “When Is “Free” Too Much of a Good Thing?”, Aliza proposes ways to get around the uneasy feeling that arises when her followers try to take advantage of her professional generosity — the kind of generosity on which millions of online brands, corporate and personal, have been built.

To my mind, underlying these two anecdotes is a single question: Can we harness the enormous potential of social media as a direct sales vehicle?

Social Media in Principle

In his article, Hangen asks, “What is it that makes one place acceptable for commerce, and another ‘sacred’?” Nathan is obviously one of those entrepreneurs who’s at the front of the proverbial wave, and has already perceived the sales-related possibilities of social media.

The thing is that most non-entrepreneurial users see social media as, well, a social forum. Yes, maybe they find your offerings interesting, informational and educational, but most people I speak to see social networks primarily as interesting and entertaining.

From the perspective of the consuming (rather than selling) world, the thing that makes one place acceptable for commerce and another “sacred” — or unacceptable for commerce — is its underlying purpose.

The first place — an online store, your company’s web site, your professional blog — is clearly and primarily built for commerce; the other — a social networking site, a friendship, a weekend barbeque — has fun, interest and enjoyment as its underlying premise. We don’t go to a BBQ hoping to buy a TV, nor do we go to a department store to make friends.

Trust is central to this differentiation. In a commercial forum, the consumer knows that you’ll be trying to obtain their trust so you can sell to them. They’re ready for it. In the second forum, their guard is down: no one’s expected to be actively trying to convince anyone else of their moral credentials. At the same time, though, the other factor that differentiates a social network from a commercial forum is that in a social medium, the user knows they have some control: they have a voice.

So in a real or virtual social network, the development of trust is more organic and more of a two-way street than it is in a commercial forum, since no one has a conscious, vested interest in being seen as trustworthy. People engaged in these networks take a more personal risk in trusting another individual, and invest themselves more heavily in the relationship in the process. They also have the power to make it known if someone in that forum does something to damage that sense of trust.

Is this too touchy-feely a way to think of your Twitter followers or your Facebook fans? If you’re the kind of entrepreneur who talks about your personal branding efforts as “giving back to the community you love”, and “fulfilling your passion”, some would say you’re using the same kind of rhetoric, but in a different field.

The issue of trust is ultimately the reason why, as Nathan testily observes, “when a passionate entrepreneur uses social media to create relationships and ask for money, that’s over the line.” Few of us believe that social relationships should be financial. In the real world, and currently online, these concepts do not usually go together. This may also help to explain the ream of responses to Aliza’s post from entrepreneurs hounded by followers who want usually costly advice for free.

Social Media in Practice

In the frustration of Hangen’s and Aliza’s posts, we’re reminded of that essential truth about social media: we don’t own it, and we can’t control it. Social media is a two-way exchange, so entrepreneurs will always be at the mercy of the crowd. Unlike traditional forms of promotion, social media talks.

Yes, this does mean that the more demanding of your followers can seem mightily demanding. But it also means that as we’re carried along on the inevitable swell of social media’s viral commercialization, we have to accept that the boundaries for those promoting themselves, as well as those hungry for information and advice, won’t always be clear. We need to consciously look for and observe them.

The concept of personal branding has done a lot to blur these lines. So perhaps one of the most important elements is for the entrepreneur to identify the boundaries for themselves before they start trying to sell through social media.

If you decide, for example, that you’re going to use social media to build your professional reputation, you may automatically assume that you’ll disseminate relevant information a way to demonstrate your expertise and passion in your field. Great.

But perhaps you should also ensure that you make it clear from the outset that you’re a business person who has something to sell, to help set the right tone for the relationships you build through your social networking efforts, and possibly keep the number of followers you upset when you promote a special offer, or draw the line on giving further advice, to a minimum.

The techniques entrepreneurs use to navigate the largely unchartered waters of casually dispensing professional wisdom in 140 characters, expressing their personal and professional integrity in posts on a company blog, and telling people about the products and services they’re selling will be as individual as each personal brand. Whatever the case, the entrepreneur must ensure that their approach to social media aligns with the way their audience sees and expects to use it. Once they understand this, if they wish, they can devise appropriate ways to push the envelope toward making social media pay.

Have you used social media to direct-sell your products and services?


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