Social media and the forgotten business opportunity

social media changes

I was lucky to start my social media journey when people were still trying to figure things out. It was a quiet place focused on people and relationships … almost to a fault. The pioneers in this space were radically anti-company, anti-advertising, and anti-measurement. I can remember one Chris Brogan rant in particular when he literally yelled at a corporate audience “This is not about your stupid company.”

Today, it is nearly ALL about your stupid company. The social web is like a carnival midway with shrill hucksters barking at you to come over to their stand.

And here is what most people have forgotten — Business has always been built on relationships, not people yelling at you. Social media used to be an extraordinary opportunity to build those relationships. And, it still can be.

I’d like for you to think about something … Are you treating people differently online versus offline? Aren’t people still people, no matter where we meet them? Here are a couple of digital “best practices” I’d like you to re-consider:

The pop-up ad on your blog

What would happen if somebody came into your store and you would not let them in unless they signed up for a newsletter? You’d lose a lot of business right?  If you wouldn’t do it in real life, why would you do it online?

The pitch

What would you think about a person who came up to you at a networking meeting and introduced herself this way: “I have never met you before and you don’t know who I am or what my company does, but I really want you to feature my product on your blog.”

Wouldn’t that be bizarre? And yet, I get emails exactly like this every single day! What makes people think this is any way to build a relationship that leads to business benefits?

The opt-in

Research shows that more than 90 percent of your customers drop out if you ask for an email address before giving away your content. If you want to help people, help people. Don’t ask for a favor first. We wouldn’t do that in real life, right?

Spamming for help

The other day I had a fellow get upset because I would not take the time to vote for him in an online Facebook contest. Before his request, I had never heard of this person before. He was upset because I would not support a stranger asking for help. I told him that he was not asking for help. He was asking me to participate in a contest. There’s a difference. He agreed that he would not have asked me to do this normally but countered that Facebook is not real life. Ummm. Yes, it is.

People are people.

Facebook Follies

In real life, would somebody come up to you at a dinner party and ask, “What’s your favorite kind of jelly?” or “What was the first thing you did this morning?” But these are common Facebook interaction techniques, aren’t they?

Folks, are you really interested in the fact that the first thing I do in the morning is scratch my ass? Can’t you do better than that?

Twitter Un-done

I really like author Guy Kawasaki. He is a smart, interesting person and very friendly in real life. Yet on Twitter, his presence is defined by a team of tweeters creating a dizzying stream of content about the sex life of zebras and mysteries of the lost sock. I had an opportunity to ask him why he does this, and he replied: “Do you see how many Twitter followers I have?”

I’m not sure I completely understand this answer but I have a hunch that he has single-handedly created the worst example of how to build business relationships on Twitter.  His “conversation” is random, annoying, and always one-way. Would you make friends with a person like that? Yet, many copy his example.

I could go on and on but I’ll spare you. I hope you’re getting the point by now. Social media is an extraordinary, historically important opportunity to create real relationships that lead to business opportunities. But we have to treat people like people or it probably won’t work. Your online presence needs to be consistent with offline human relations skills. People are people. Treat them with respect wherever you are.

Isn’t that just common sense?

Illustration courtesy of BigStock.

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  • Great set of examples Mark. I get the ‘Pitch’ more and more and I must admit, I usually just ignore and delete the email.
    I have done business with a few businesses in the past but it has always been a collaboration as opposed to a ‘favour’. From this I have some great relationships with that business and it’s owners.

    I also get what you mean about Guy, I follow him but mostly to read some interesting stuff, I have never felt the need to converse with him, which is not what SOCIAL media should be about.

    I no longer use Facebook for personal interaction, it’s broken, and I don’t like it – I’ve moved to Google+ which does have a real community spirit and is mostly free form cat videos and people falling in swimming pools 🙂

  • Yvonne Root

    Amen Brother, preach it!

    So many who use and teach the use of pop ups say they do so because “it works.” Perhaps it does, but to whose detriment?

    Your words of wisdom need to be spread in both the online and “actual” world. Manners. Who needs ’em? We all do.

  • I absolutely abhor pop-ups and do not re-visit sites on which they’re located. Maybe they get SOME visitors to take action…but I always question the quality of those “acting” visitors. Perhaps the owners of pop-up heavy sites simply don’t care. But as you say, I take a “relationship” view to blogging. I suspect this means I’ll never make much money from the endeavor, but who knows.

    I’ve been loving your blog since I stumbled on it a few weeks ago. Thank you for all the work you put into it (and that’s my biggest question – how do you find the time to be so productive?!).

  • Claudia Licher

    Hi Mark,
    I can’t help thinking… people who dare to pitch like that are perfect clients for a bit of business advice. More than a bit, actually.
    Great post!

  • Hilarious stuff. But that’s what you get if you manage by numbers: quantity becomes the norm. Rinse & repeat, and act all surprised if they get fed up. If you want your customer to be your loyal partner, you’ve got to work on the relationship. Treat it as such. Imagine your spouse telling you: ‘My numbers show my spaghetti gets the highest approval ratings in this household. We’ll have spaghetti each and every day now! Aren’t you happy I know you so well?’ No you don’t. If you want to make people happy, look for clues how to brighten their future – not for things that have brightened their past.

  • MargsC

    brilliant! thanks for this, going to throw it around a bit and hopefully shame a few people!!! 😀

  • Thanks Barry. Wonder what keeps G+ from falling into the same muck as Facebook?

  • Maybe it does work. But I wonder what the retention rate is? I was at a conference where we actually had to download a sponsor’s app to get lunch. We did it, and then deleted it!

  • It gets down to discipline Rebecca. Constantly collect story ideas, block out the time to write, make it a priority. And … I don;t watch much TV!! : )

  • Hmmm. I like the way you think! There are thousands of them!

  • Love this. So true Volkert. Wish more people thought like you!

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment and let me know!

  • Yvonne Root


  • Mark,

    One question, one comment…

    Question: When you talk about Opt-Ins are you referring to something like giving away a free eBook in exchange for subscribing? Or the Fan Gate type opt-ins where you can’t see any content until you subscribe?

    Comment: I know Guy Kawasaki is supposed to be a great guy and I’m sure that he is… But his online presence is awful to follow. I’ve had to unfollow him on every social platform. He (or I should say his team) just blasts you with irrelevant information all day long. I know it works for him, but I would never point at what he does and tell someone to take notes.


  • It doesn’t seem to be used by ‘friends’, more by people with similar interests. For this reason there is less tolerance for pointless updates.

  • Hate pop-ups and one-way tweets (many marketing/PR people are guilty of this, ironically). Regarding the unsolicited pitch, in the pre-social media world, I had luck reaching out to people who are total strangers, asking for help or offering a service. It had to be done well, of course. But there wasn’t the same expectation that you could easily strike up a relationship first with a stranger back then. Often the start of that relationship was a well-tailored pitch.

  • Love this post, Mark. I’ve read a lot of articles lately (and even a book) that basically said “in fact, research shows you’re NOT penalized (with a net loss of followers) for asking for likes and retweets or for putting pop ups all over your site”. It’s sad that much of social media advice has shifted from the opportunity to personally connect with people to a “let’s see how much we can get away with” type strategy.

    Thank you for championing this message. It truly is the only way forward in the online world, isn’t it?

  • This is fantastic Mark. It is all about relationships. Yes, indeed. If you show you CARE about people, listen to them, bring some value and help them, you are on the right track. ( On line or off line ) Thanks again for another great piece.
    Take CARE,

  • Tim Bonner

    I hold my hands up, I have a pop up on my blog!

    I’ve been considering it for a while or perhaps reconsidering it is the right way to put it.

    I felt like I wanted to test it out, gauge reaction, sign ups, retention etc.

    The results have been better than expected but then my blog’s also pretty new and small fry in traffic generation.

  • I see that too.

  • Yes, things have changed and unfortunately, I would probably delete even a well-tailored pitch today because it would get lost in the pile of crap I see every day.

  • It’s always been that way, too. Why did people forget this? Thanks for commenting Al!

  • I’ve read a lot of articles (and even a book) lately saying that “in fact, research shows that you’re NOT penalized (with a net loss of followers) for asking for likes and retweets and putting pop ups on your blog”. It’s sad that so much of social media advice has moved from promoting the opportunity to personally connect with people around the world (why doesn’t this still blow our minds?!?) to a “let’s see how much we can get away with” type strategy.

    Thanks for championing this message, Mark. It truly is the only way forward in the online world, isn’t it?

  • The nice thing about social media is … there are no rules. If it works for you, more power to you. My theory though is that in the long-term respect will win out. I might be wrong, who knows! Thanks for the honesty Tim!

  • This was the theme of our conversation, wasn’t it? I take any “research” I see with a grain of salt. If you dig deep, most research on the social web is self-serving. There is almost no statistical rigor out there. You can probably find a survey somewhere to prove anything you want.

    In this morass, I fall back on common sense. How do I want to be treated? What makes me respect an author? What builds true loyalty, not just a “list?” I have to believe that this is the way forward, this is the way to distinguish yourself. Be nice, be honest, be respectful. Treat people as if they are friends in your home. We’ll see I guess! Thanks for all your great comments Sarah!

  • Yes, it’s time for common sense to make a comeback (online and off).

  • RandyBowden

    Good stuff Mark! I think the rise of the “online” marketer allows the spotlight to shine on the lose of creative ideas and some of the basic skill sets! Just be genuine and original, right? I see so many coping the other guy/girl and trying every trick in the book that screams “look at me!” Bright colors, funky little caricatures, not so clever memes, a constant flow of “a random questions” all to capture some little engagement to prove that there is purpose!

    Learn your client/customer, give thought (a lot) about how you can help them, formulate a strategy and help them implement it. Just do good work and try and learn something new occasionally…but hey, I could be wrong!

  • We’re aligned on this one to be sure but being genuine and original is not necessarily easy. It’s safer to copy or become a persona. Thanks Randy!

  • Megan Conley

    I’m 100% on board with relationships, but I do think some of the tools you mentioned can help you build relationships – not damage them. For example, I use pop ups! If I love a blog, I’m happy to have a pop up served to me so that it’s easy for me to sign-up to receive their content. Also, on your point about Facebook Follies – I get where you’re coming from, but sometimes it’s helpful to use general conversation “openers” to establish a repoire. Once you’ve opened the lines of communication, that’s when it’s critical to convert that initiate interaction into a more meaningful engagement. My two cents 🙂

  • RandyBowden

    There’s that word “easy.”

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  • Great post, Mark on getting back to the fundamental basics of marketing and sales.

  • Twitter has especially become a spam fest. I can through my feed and find anything of use. Seems like businesses have forgotten the social in social media. No conversations start by companies.

  • Always exceptions to the rule. In fact, there is no “rule.” If it’s working for you, keep doing it Megan. BTW, what’s your favorite kind of jelly?

  • Always exceptions to the rule. In fact, there is no “rule.” If it’s working for you, keep doing it Megan. BTW, what’s your favorite kind of jelly?

  • Thank you very much Giovanni!

  • Maybe it’s time to prune your feed! I’ve surrounded myself with cool folks and I learn something every day! Good luck Jon.

  • thatvideomagazine

    “Isn’t that just common sense?” My reply, common sense is not common. Great article. Social media existed before it was “Social media”. It’s called customer service.

  • Great article Mark! I agree with all of this. There are some very weird behaviours that people think are acceptable online, but wouldn’t be offline. Social Media is a parallel to the offline world – what you wouldn’t do outside of the web, you shouldn’t do online.

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  • One of the challenges is that “bad behavior” isn’t questioned, sometimes it is just endured and that leads more of us to act like Sneetches and behave in ways we might not if we really stopped to think about what we are doing.

  • Thanks for commenting.

  • That would make a really interesting psychological study. Why would that be? I can understand stalkers, haters, etc hiding behind anonymity but why would business people treat their customers differently? Weird. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment Daniel.

  • Truth. Well said Josh!

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  • Leah Hoppes Strohman

    So, just how did the ‘ask a question’ mandate even get started? I’ve tried it (against my better judgement) in an effort to play by the rules, but I ending up giving up on it recently because I was annoying myself. Thanks for some real, down-to-earth, common sense writing about all of this. Great post Mark!

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  • Here’s my theory. People are trying to drive engagement to increase their Klout score. It’s the only explanation I can think of. People cannot possibly be that interested in jelly.

  • Leah Hoppes Strohman

    Oh yeah, I looked into Klout and proved out my theory that it was nonsense. Want to find out how? Lol, I can’t stop ending with questions!;) I look forward to future posts!

  • That would make an interesting study Mark! Send me your findings when you’re done with it 😉 haha

  • I’m chuckling. Maybe you are new here? I actually wrote a book about online influence that discusses why Klout is NOT nonsense. In fact, it can be useful … but not how most people think. Here is a short summary of what Klout is about but you might enjoy the book, which is called Return On Influence:

  • No, you do it. You have more energy than me!

  • Leah Hoppes Strohman

    I AM new:) and have been struggling to discern who to listen to so you’ve got me intrigued! Thanks for the links, will read!

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  • Welcome. I’m honored and humbled that you (or anybody) spends time on my blog. I promise you will always find something interesting here. I look forward to getting to know you.

  • Christine Webber

    Great blog thanks Mark. I really dislike the tweets that are obviously RSS feeds. No original thought from the communicator at all. To follow your train of thought, would they talk face to face spouting out quotes or other people’s thoughts? I think not! When you make anything a numbers game you lose the ability to grow trust and respect.

  • Mark, This is so true and something that we have tried to point out to our clients. Some get it, and some don’t. I too, have been participating in social media since 2005, so like you, I remember a time when everything was intimate and personal. I think that stressing online is real life is a good way of doing it.

    I agree that “popularity” numbers like followers and fans breeds a shouting culture. After all, you get what you measure. I have found it better to focus on measurements like intereactions and actions. However, like one of your commentors said, pop ups and other “in your face” tactics seem to work. You DO get more sign ups with pop ups, I am sure, but not without annoying many of you potential readers. I can’t impagine becoming a regular on a blog that has a pop up. Usually I encounter them when I am searching for something particular, so I just click the little X button, read what I came to read, and get out of there.

    By the way, the pop ups are particularly annoying on my mobile, the X is almost impossible to click on.

  • debraandrews

    This is a funny and great reminder of what social media is supposed to be. Thanks for my morning laugh and insight. Can’t wait to hear you speak in Philadelphia next month!

  • KS


    With time Social Media has become an efficient and effective tool for marketing, though many of us do not know the proper use of it.Now when Google has become so stingy with its panda and penguin updates, where link building for SEO has died we must understand Social Media and its content.

    Coming to Guy Kawasaki he is an interesting fellow (though I have stopped following him but he was prime in my list when I was new on G+ and I think people of his sort don’t appear professional at social sites) and has been really tweeting about anything and everything , obviously for followers which I think he has lot many.

    Thanks for the cool post.

  • Indeed Mark! Thank you for this extraordinary read… Your perspective is always an eye-opener, and on target!.

  • Lol. If I was still in university, I would totally propose this to my profs for an honor’s thesis.

  • Megan Conley

    Homemade blackberry jam 🙂

  • Edward Quarm

    Hi mark ,i have been following your blog for about 5 months now,you say you will promise to provide interesting things here.I think that most of our lives are uninteresting and we can’t promise to always make it interesting,which is how life is,i started to follow your articles to learn from you and your guest writers some are really interesting some not,but the important thing is that i learn and use it in my own way.Real relationship are not always interesting,exciting,funny,enjoyable,why should being online be any different?
    Yes we want to use social media to get leads,traffic,make money,but we also have to remember its about the social interaction with people that really matters,that’s why i changed my approach to social media and now work at building relationships with people,which means that its not always going to be interesting,etc… but you can still pick up something insightful and i can provide my 2 cents worth,which to me is (now)what social media is about,so keep up the good work but ,don’t make it so hard on yourself,what you are doing is not easy,many of us would like be able to write interesting article which are original,which get read.
    Anyways thats my bit said.

  • Well… let’s say I TRY to make it interesting! : )

  • The seeds annoy me but good choice : )

  • Either one really. I know it works for some people and if it works, more power to you. There are no rules, just ideas. My idea is that the more human and respectful we are, the better chances we will win the hearts and minds. If you ever meet Guy I think you will agree he is a very nice guy but a weird social strategy!

  • Well said Christine. Many thanks friend.

  • It is in the realm of possibility that I am wrong, at least in the short term, but I think creating and sustaining relationships is really the only sustainable long-term strategy.Time will tell i suppose : )

    Honored to have you comment!

  • Can’t wait to be there!

  • Thanks for stopping by the blog today and sharing your thoughts with us!

  • … at least to you. : ) Glad to have you as a loyal friend out there Dr. Rae!

  • Ny pleasure… Right back at you Mark!

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  • Yes, it is common sense. But common sense is not so common anymore. 😉

    Excellent article, as always, Mark!

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  • Paul Back

    Hey Mark

    I could not agree with you more – relationship building is the basic foundation of starting and running a successful business, it has always been this way and it will always be so.

    For instance good marketing heavily relies on connecting with your audience and satisfying one of their needs or problems and this requires for you to understand your audience and then deliver what they want – for that you need a two way conversation.

    When I started my first business, I learned the hard way that its not about advertising to a faceless mob, but its more about building and nurturing links to people, understanding what they want and the doing your best to provide for them.

    Using facebook I made a strong and at least to me a very powerful connection with some of my customers, I gave them my best guidance and they went out of their way to give me invaluable feedback and support.

    It was very gratifying and made it all worth it for me in the end even as my business tanked due to lack of experience. Social media is a relatively new medium, but the relationship aspect has always been there.

    We are very lucky yo live in the time of social media as it provided an endless and very exciting opportunities to connect with people that previous could have been out of bounds. Its very refreshing to see someone who “gets it” and writes fantastic content like this to educate and change peoples opinions.
    Thanks for the fantastic resource and I look forward to seeing your work in the future.

    Paul Back

  • Maria Juana

    Internet users must encouraged to develop their literacy regarding self-regulation.

  • Thank you Cendrine.

  • Thanks for your support and the very generous sentiment Paul.

  • Holly McIlwain

    B2B sales has always been P2P (Peeps to Peeps.) Businesses don’t sell to businesses, people sell to people. I think what you’re saying here is that social media is the same. My background is B2B and the more I learn about social media the more I realize that many of the networking strategies are the same as the years of sales training I’ve received and provided for salespeople in the past. The difference is we have new tactical tools with social media. I’m curious to see how the consumers react to their “social” tools becoming so commercialized. Back to Chris Brogan’s original comment.
    Mark, interesting insight into your morning. Mine has become reading your blog. Always thought provoking. Tip, Be sure to wash your hands before you use your keyboard.
    Thanks Y’all.

  • Holly McIlwain

    Excellent comment. Determining what will ‘brighten their future’ is the challenge business owners and marketing execs are charged with. Asking ourselves, how can we be better? What are we missing?

  • Thanks very much for taking the time to comment Holly!

  • Sarah Jocson

    Good ideas! Very encouraging on how to be successful in your business.

    how to be successful in your business.

  • Sarah Jocson

    Good ideas! Very encouraging on how to be successful in your business.

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  • Will Reichard

    I don’t mind signing up for an email newsletter … if I’m getting something I think is of equal value. (And I value time spent deleting email newsletters from my inbox pretty high.) Almost always, if I go to a site and the first thing I see is a popup of any kind, I immediately close the tab and move on. But I hear over and over that the stupid things actually sell something to someone (who are these suckers? they’re ruining life for all of us!).

    I am so deeply, truly tired of spam. Social media has the potential to stop it, but it’s not going to happen with this generation because the current systems are less and less “social” and exist more and more to serve corporate interests rather than users’. (I promise, Mark, not to let this devolve into a rant about Klout, OK?)

    In any case, I think you show here as always your impeccable sales skills. You know that people never mind paying a fair price. That’s an equitable relationship, one we can all live with. But we’re being nickle-and-dimed with every link these days.

    I sometimes dream of a site where people were only allowed to update once a day. Period. No exceptions. Imagine how that would change the conversation!

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