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Is Your Social Media Marketing a Turn Off?

Turns out, the line between promoting your brand and cyber-stalking your customers is thinner than you think.
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Getting "liked" online in some form or another has become a de rigueur part of marketing. But a recent poll of consumers who use social networks suggests just how easy it is for companies to unwittingly convince people to click that invisible, but oh so potent, "hate" button.

Insight Strategy Group conducted an online survey of 514 adults from 18 to 64 years of age. They all previously or currently had an account on a social networking site such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare, or YouTube.

An enormous number—93 percent—understood that companies use social networking to get new customers, while 91 percent agreed that businesses use social networks to disseminate information about their products and services to potential customers. More than half thought that a company needed a Facebook page to stay relevant.

But understanding doesn't necessary lead to approval:

  • 64 percent literally "hate when a company finds them through their social networking profile"
  • 62 percent "hate that companies market to them based on their social networking use"
  • 60 percent said that "it is annoying when a company uses Facebook and Twitter to communicate with them"
  • 58 percent thought it "invasive" when companies used social networking because "it is a space meant for people socializing"

Nevertheless, 55 percent thought that social networking sites were the best way to deliver feedback to a company and 54 percent wanted companies to have a page or feed on a social networking site.

Contradictory? Sure, but a little applied marketing psychology quickly clears the conundrum. As Kit Yarrow, chair of the psychology department at Golden Gate University told me last fall, consumers have much to feel anxious about, whether the job market, personal economics, or politics. Their reaction is to seek control in their shopping.

When a company has a page on Facebook or a Twitter feed that provides information about deals, the consumer remains in control, fitting in with her observations. You go to the page or feed when you want to get something of value, or to raise a complaint.

Now have a company actively market to consumers via social networks. It's as though the business broke into people's online homes to sell them its new bar of soap. That sort of active marketing becomes the literal embodiment of following consumers where they go online. Only, instead of quietly watching from the edges through behavioral market, the company now jumps into view to deliver a pitch. Put that way and it seems downright creepy.

And yet, according to Insight Strategy, a lot of resistance disappears when people "perceive that there is something in it for them." It actually makes sense. As Yarrow noted, bargain hunting has become a way for consumers to reassert control.

The takeaway: Use social media in a smart way. Let consumers come to you for a benefit, and then let them spread the word. That way, you get to market without seeming like the ex that simply wouldn't go away.

Last updated: Feb 28, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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