The Social Contract Of Social Media

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Once we get enough people liking, friending, following and plus-ing us, we can start pushing product.

No matter where you turn, this seems to be the social media endgame: sell them more stuff. The trick with selling more stuff in social media is that you need to have some semblance of an audience (and, this audience has to be somewhat engaged), so that when you’re ready to pull the trigger and start your shilling, that they’re still there, listening and engaging with the brand.

Is that really the point?

For years, I’ve talked about the social contract that happens in social media. Let’s take this blog as an example: if tomorrow (and forevermore after that) each and every blog post was a coupon, offer or some kind of pitch, what do you think the conversion rate would look like? What if it wasn’t so radical, but let’s say that once week, I sprinkled in one of those pushy sales pitches into the regular flow of content, would that be acceptable? Either way, the answer is somewhat meaningless because it is, ultimately, an act of bait and switch. I lured you in with content (giving true value) but then suddenly switched it up (to your surprise, but I knew that it was the play all along). Is being deceitful or unclear the best business model brands can come up with?

Many brands do this – each and every day.

This is the endgame for most brands (and, to prove it, the majority of them won’t even admit it publicly… which makes it more true ;). The truth is that you have to choose your social contract prior to publishing anything. On top of that, you have to make the social contract dramatically clear to each and every business unit within your organization, because when it works and people start connecting with your brand, the first thing everyone in the company will want to do it pollute the community and engagement with sales and offers.

I see this each and every day.

The bigger the brand, the bigger the challenge and the bigger the temptation is to "get on with the selling." It doesn’t have to be this way. Creating value as a social contract may not enable a brand to directly shill coupons, but it creates a massive amount of sharing and chatter (both online and offline) that can drive to direct sales. On top of that, a significant and engaged audience can be asked if they would want/accept a separate area, specifically created, for offers and promotions.

There’s nothing wrong with selling.

If your social media isn’t driving business, then it’s just a hobby. The occasional ask of an audience for something is quickly forgiven and mostly accepted when you’re constantly and consistently delivering value. Conversely, I’ve seen many strong promotions and incentives-based social media platforms that work like magic. The reason this works is the social contract. It’s what people have not only signed up for, but expect. The murkiness and scuzzyness flows when the brand decides that it is suddenly time to do something divergent from the social contract.

Guard the social contract.

Whatever your brand may be about within the social media spheres (selling, shilling, adding value, customer support, curator, etc…) is fine. The audience will decide if there’s value enough to connect with it and stay with it. Whatever path you chose, just ensure that you guard that social contract with your life. That you don’t allow the brand to bastardize it or change it because they need some short-term sales. It will be one of the hardest things to do, but have faith that (in the end), you’re doing the right thing because you are doing what’s best for the customer.

Remember: without customers… there is no business.


  1. You make excellent points once again, Mitch.
    I get annoyed when brands tell me to Like them on Facebook or Follow them on Twitter. Instead of earning my loyalty, they offer enticements. I won’t be bought that cheaply. If I wanted to connect publicly, I already would. I don’t want to be associated with more brands. I’ve got enough clutter already.
    Consistency is definitely key. I give Dell and Best Buy permission to email me flyers. We have a customer/vendor relationship. I’m satisfied.
    I recently signed up for a couple of newsletters for book writers. I was expecting educational blog-like content. Instead, I keep getting other emails with offers to buy stuff and attend conferences. They keep sending reminders too. That’s not what I was expecting. I’m dissatisfied and likely to unsubscribe. When I signed up, there was no indication of how many “special offers” I’d be getting.

  2. Terrific post Mitch. I find that contract is easier to support, and the value exchange more fair for the humble consumer, when the company considers (rightfully so, in my estimation) social to be more of a loyalty and retention tool than a customer acquisition tool.
    Selling again to someone who already has voted with their wallet in your favor fits the current social ethos better than trying to create customers out of thin air with a tweet or video (or whatever).
    It also combines sales, marketing, and customer service in a more holistic way that I believe is very much on trend. Someday we’ll look back and say “wait, the customer service guys and the marketing guys weren’t on the same team?”

  3. Great to see you articulate one of of my main concerns relating to my own blog as I get started. And it’s something I keep coming back to when I talk to ‘experts’. The more blogs I read, the more I see the underlying pitch in play. They seem to lack authenticity, as I know I’m being ‘sold’ in some way. On the other hand, I’d like to write in a way that invites interaction… Still plugging away trying to find the balance.

  4. As they say, it’s a lot easier to sell anything when you have already established your credibility and already have a good relationship with your audience. Top of mind of any individual who go to your site is the question: W-I-I-F-M? or, What’s In It For Me? Without making sure that you have given them what they really want, they won’t really buy whatever it is that you’re selling. But timing also counts. Knowing when the art of selling really starts matter a lot.

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