Rules of Participation

Part of my responsibilities as marketing and communications coordinator for our e-commerce website is the creation and distribution of a monthly newsletter. Forecasting a need for some content in the newsletter, one month I reached out to industry experts on my list with a call for articles. The offer was simple: you write an article for me about your industry and I’ll give your company some advertising space on my website.

The response was quite positive and this quid pro quo relationship certainly helped keep the newsletter active during the months when I was really in need of content.

It is important to mention here that when I invited the industry experts to participate in my newsletter, I didn’t just give them carte blanche to ramble on about any topic they desired. No. I had some rules for them. Three rules, specifically. They were:

  1. Don’t talk about yourself
  2. Don’t talk about your company
  3. Don’t talk about your product or service

All I wanted them to do is talk about their industry. All I wanted them to do is write about the issues or problems faced their peers in that industry and offer their expert advice on how to overcome those problems, without turning it into a sales pitch.

In short, I just wanted them to be helpful.

You are probably thinking, “That’s a really nice story. But how does it relate to me?” Well, this post is a continuation of the social media framework we’ve been discussing. In particular, today I’m talking about the participation phase.

When the industry experts were asked to participate in my newsletter, I explicitly laid down some rules for them. I acted as a gatekeeper of sorts. If they didn’t comply with the rules, their story wouldn’t get published. Believe it or not, a similar set of rules applies in the digital social networks.

While there are typically no gatekeepers in the online social networks and the rules are rarely explicitly expressed, don’t make the mistake of assuming that no rules exist. In fact, because there are no gatekeepers and anyone can publish anything at anytime, using these social networks can be just as detrimental as not using them. In other words, if you don’t understand or comply with the accepted community standards in a network, you can really damage your reputation and bring harm to your brand.

Believe it or not, most of the implied social rules in the digital world are very similar to my expressed rules for the newsletter. For example, it’s OK to talk about yourself, but exercise some restraint. Most people don’t care for the minute-to-minute updates on the details of your daily routine. It is totally fine to share your expertise in a particular subject matter, but don’t pimp yourself, your product or services. Don’t beat people over the head with sales pitches or links to a product page.

A good rule of thumb to ask yourself when commenting on another persons blog or updating your status on Facebook or Twitter is: Am I being helpful?

For example, I’d be more inclined to care about a tasty dish you ate if you also included a link to a recipe. I would be more interested to hear about you walking your dog if you also shared an idea you had to improve the dog leash. I would be more excited to hear about a shopping trip you went on if you told us where to get a great deal on something or shared a coupon.

Get it?

I think one of the hardest lessons to learn when first using these new online communications tools is that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. By that I mean just because these online channels provide you with the ability for mass communication of ideas to a gigantic audience, you do not have the right to broadcast a crappy message to an uninterested audience.

I learned this lesson the hard way when AOL complained to my Internet Service Provider that we were using email to spam its members (I wasn’t). My company’s IP address was blacklisted and we were effectively cut-off from using email for two days while I begged and pleaded with the ISP to take us off the naughty list.

Exercising restraint and using good judgement when broadcasting is one of the biggest mistakes businesses make when they transition from analog marketing practices to digital marketing practices. I am determined not to make the same mistake again, and if I can help others along they way, all the better.

I’ve said before that the participation phase is like dipping your toe into the water before jumping into the pool. It is a step above observation and a step below content origination. By commenting on blogs and connecting with peers on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; you can get a good idea of how to operate in this new space.

Remember our goals for this stage: get comfortable sharing in public spaces, start new and positive habits, lay a good foundation of participation in preparation for the create stage, and most importantly: be helpful.

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