Ethics, Strategy, and Social Media

Social media for business is an investment. Since it requires time, there is a cost, either in hiring social media pros or in opportunity costs for staff members who put paid time into it. Since it is an investment, it has to have a return. That means it has to be measured and there has to be a strategy.

Recently, we were discussing strategy for a new social media initiative for a client. I suggested that we identify the places our target readers hang out, and that we hang out there ourselves, joining in the conversations when we had something useful to offer and becoming part of the group in preparation for the launch of the initiative.

“And then,” said Jonathan, “we swoop down on stallions?”

The guy plays video games.

This comment has stayed in my mind, though, and has come back to me as I’ve read some discussions recently on ethical issues related to social media.

One of the topics has been the question of paid reviews, something most of us would agree is unethical. I write honest, unpaid reviews. When a researcher asked me recently about my motivation for doing so, I initially said I do it because I found other people’s reviews useful, so I wanted to be helpful in the same way. That’s true. But it’s also true that new clients find me through those reviews. And it’s true that I write reviews — honest reviews — on other blogs and on review sites during time clients pay for, whether in order to create interesting content for their customers or to create links for their websites. It’s even true that I get a lot of free stuff sent to me to review, which isn’t the same as a payment but is certainly a perk.

I get requests for link swaps and paid link placement, all of which I ignore. I’m not that kind of writer. I put a lot of effort and creativity into finding opportunities for links and reviews for my clients. I definitely am that kind of writer. That is, a strategic user of the myriad opportunities the web affords for spreading the word about something great.

So is strategic social media unethical?

To answer that question, let’s shift focus for a moment. Think back to the last time you ate in a restaurant. Someone prepared that food for you, and someone brought it to you. The people you spoke with probably talked with you in a reasonably friendly way (depending on the region you were in, of course) and gave every indication that they cared about you and your dining experience.

They got paid for that. They didn’t cook for you because they love you, or ask after your health because you had been on their minds. In the best case scenario, they took pride in their work and enjoyed creating a wonderful experience for you and the whole experience was satisfying for all parties, but the basic nature of that transaction is commercial. You probably weren’t offended by that fact.

Indeed, if you had to rely on sheer kindness to provide all your meals and coffee, you’d probably go hungry. If you had to rely on passionate amateurs to provide all the content on the web, you wouldn’t have nearly as much good stuff to read.

A company’s social media is no different from the other products they offer. Social media is a medium for customer service, marketing, community outreach, and networking — all of which are things working people routinely get paid to do.

The point is that there are ethical lines in social media, but that they aren’t based on the distinction between strategic professional social media and casual friendly social media. There is nothing wrong with a company providing content on a social media platform in order to please their customers. It’s more effective when it’s done strategically.

Draw the line at trampling people beneath your hooves.


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2 responses to “Ethics, Strategy, and Social Media”

  1. Susan Idlet Avatar

    It’s so refreshing that you actually address the ETHICS of strategic social media. Makes me feel downright virtuous to have you on our team!

    1. Rebecca Haden Avatar

      I appreciate that about the UBH team, too. Ethical behavior matters a lot in the long run, it seems to me.

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