My friend Eileen had a gray striped cat named Nimbus whose greatest joy was to hunt in the backyard woods and drop his offerings at her back door. Eileen never knew what she'd find when she opened the door--a chipmunk, vole, mole or bird.
Nimbus was easily forgiven--he was a cat, operating solely on instinct. Far more accountable are those who manage their business the way Nimbus operated his--by plopping the unwanted and often distasteful straight into our unsuspecting laps under the guise of "marketing."
Here are my top picks for business marketing efforts that are as distasteful as dead critters on the doorstep. Keep in mind that I'm not talking about illegal practices such as e-mail spam. Rather, these are strategies that fall under gray areas of marketing etiquette.
Subscribing a new contact to your company e-mail list: A handshake is not an opt-in.
Have you ever met someone at a networking event and exchanged business cards, only to find that you've been subscribed to their business newsletter? Or do you regularly do the same on behalf of your own company? It's common practice in many circles--but it shouldn't be.
Proper etiquette: Follow up with a new contact via a personal e-mail that contains information about your services or products (if appropriate) or an invitation to join your e-mail list, along with a specific reason why your new friend would find it useful. Something like this: After our conversation about organic farming, I thought you might enjoy our weekly newsletter about raising backyard chickens. I can add you to the list, or you can subscribe here.
In other words, let new contacts opt in to receive your newsletter. Don't automatically assume they'd love to be subscribed--even if your new friend is the most passionate chicken whisperer you've ever met.
Automated social media updates: Robo messages are not a proxy for interaction.
I can't say it never makes sense to automate updates to your company Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+ page, because it can be efficient in some cases. For example, automation tools can help you share new blog posts in a few places at once, and many platforms offer a handy central dashboard for monitoring a brand's social presence. That's good stuff.
The problem comes when companies abuse automation by taking a "set it and forget it" mindset. For example, when companies don't respond to customer inquiries (or even just a simple shout-out) on Twitter or Facebook, or when their automated tweets continue to cluelessly post during a crisis.
Proper etiquette: Use automation to enhance your social efforts, not supplant it. Have a real human being at your social media helm, someone with actual blood pumping through actual veins who can participate in real conversations with customers, as well as monitor and tweak your social presences.
And for the love of Pete, please disable robo direct messages on Twitter--those automated messages some folks set to greet any new follower on that platform. They reek of insincerity. What's more, they run counter to the spirit of social media and the opportunity for one-to-one interaction it affords.
Social spam: Give more than you take.
The opportunities presented by social media to connect directly with the people you want to reach are immense. Don't squander that by ignoring context or by overstepping boundaries. Don't be known as the social spammer--the one who simply shills his or her business or products. At best, you'll appear to be clueless; at worst, it's a social pitch-slap.
Proper etiquette: If you join a Linked-In group to connect with others in your industry, contribute to the group with discussion and input. If you connect with a potential business contact on Facebook, restrain from posting your affiliate links on their wall. General guidelines: Be useful. Be helpful. Be known as a source of solid information.
Oversharing: Think personable, not personal.
Social platforms do present an opportunity to reveal more of the people and personalities behind a company. But there is a fine line between sharing a little of yourself and sharing too much of yourself.
Proper etiquette: Think of personalizing your brand, not getting personal. Be sure you aren't sharing details that are too intimate or too specific to you to have relevance for the larger community you are trying to build.
Irresponsible content: Publishing is a privilege, not a right.
Many companies have assumed the "we're all publishers now" mantra--without a clear understanding of the ground rules. No matter what kind of content you might be creating as part of your marketing efforts, you can learn much from journalists.
Proper etiquette: Thinking like a publisher is not enough; you need to act like one. In fact, those creating content on behalf of brands should adhere more strictly to standards than mainstream journalists do, because readers are naturally skeptical of material produced by a brand.
What does that mean? It means posting trustworthy content. It means citing original sources in anything you produce (not the blog post that references a research summary). It means sharing news that's actually news outside of your boardroom. It means not deleting or ignoring any negative feedback your brand receives. And it means publishing what's actually useful to your customers, instead of what's useful only to you.
Treat publishing as a privilege--not a right. And treat marketing, more broadly, as an opportunity to help--not to hinder.