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Social networking began as a personal communication tool. Friendster, MySpace and Facebook were all about friendships and dating. Today of course, social media has also become another arm of marketing.

Increasingly, businesses are actively promoting their brands and products, and sharing thought leadership content through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+. When you interact with your company’s followers on these sites, it’s great to be bold, intelligent, fun and thought-provoking. But it’s more important to not cross the lines of propriety. Nobody wants to be known as a “social media stalker.”

Here’s an example: let’s say someone tweets favorably about one of your competitors. Would you track down the Tweeter, and send them an email (or even a public retweet) disparaging the competitor in favor of your superior brand? Of course not.

But what if that same person mentioned that she was looking for new high-end golf clubs for the serious amateur, and you happen to market some that fit the bill? By all means, reply through Twitter with a teaser and link to your product page. Could you pass the tweet along to your sales team? Sure, but until the prospect shares their personal contact information with marketing or sales, it’s less creepy to communicate with her through Twitter.

Every company has its own rules for social media marketing, but keep in mind that social networking is a person-to-person tool. Few people enjoy hard-sell marketing ploys on social networking sites — and they certainly don’t want to feel as if they are being stalked by your company. Here are a few tips on how to avoid being a social media creep, while still achieving sales and marketing goals.

1. Be helpful but not pushy

Twitter and LinkedIn can be excellent business marketing platforms. Keep up with relevant conversations, or in the case of LinkedIn, questions from groups or the Q&A tool, and then offer potential solutions to people’s requests. For example, if Joe tweets that he’s looking for an email marketing vendor, and this is a service that your company provides, you could respond to Joe’s tweet and ask if he’d be open to a conversation about the topic. This way, you can introduce yourself to Joe in a non-threatening manner and begin to establish a relationship. When you reply to someone, share educational information, such as a link to a recent blog post on the topic, and suggest alternative solutions if your product doesn’t meet Joe’s needs. That approach provides a lot of credibility and who knows, Joe might even refer you to someone else.

2. Be a thought leader, if you can

Social media is a place for learning, sharing and making relevant contacts. Instead of constantly promoting your own news, products, and website, share information and trends about the industry at large and even, what your competitors are doing. Link tweets back to a well-written blog to generate discussions and interactions. Be thought-provoking and engage on several social platforms if you can. If you toot your own horn only once in a while, people will start to listen. When and if you do decide to contact someone through one of these networks, they may take a look at your past activity. If you look too aggressive or self-serving in your approach, your hot prospect may not respond.

3. Be careful what you say, even if you know a lot

Researching potential prospects through social media can provide unique insight into the person’s interests, both personally and professionally, but take care in how you use that knowledge. Prospects probably know that you can find loads of information about them on the Web, but don’t ask how the in-laws’ dinner was last night, which they blabbed about on Twitter.  The best way for sales to use social media is to prepare for a sales call. New technologies can pull in information from an individual’s public profile and display the data within the CRM interface. This gives your company one-click access into a prospect’s recent social media interactions and can even reveal a picture of the prospect. Use what you’ve learned as background information and find one discrete moment during the meeting to mention something that you know about your prospect. It could be as simple as making a comment about a recent blog post that he wrote, or congratulating him on a recent promotion that you saw on LinkedIn.

4. Reach out if you see active interest in your brand

In cases where there is a social media mention of your own brand, or the brand of your key competitors, you may want to take a more aggressive approach to following up. If Joe had said he was looking for more information on your product, you might send his information to sales as a new lead and have a representative follow up with him directly. As mentioned previously, it’s always best to make the first contact with an individual at the same site where they initiated the discussion. Sites like Twitter and LinkedIn are invaluable marketing tools, because they can uncover prospects you may have not otherwise discovered. It’s easy to subscribe to relevant discussion boards for your target market and use tools like TweetDeck to monitor company and brand keywords so that you don’t miss a beat. Just keep in mind that social media is about interacting with others and expressing ideas, not about making a sales pitch.

5. Stay on top of social marketing best practices and trends

Social media is a fast-moving world. New sites, applications, methodologies and tools are appearing every week. Subscribing to blogs and news sites that cover Web and social media trends is helpful, as is sharing ideas with colleagues.  Here are a few common practices that apply to all businesses when engaging in social media marketing.

  • Interact, interact, interact: Establish yourself as a thought leader and a social media pro.
  • Listen: Set up alerts for your brand, your competitors’ brands and other related industry terms.
  • Have a strategy: Be clear on who is responsible for follow-up so that multiple reps don’t swarm a single tweet
  • Stay positive: Refrain from bashing competitors and never complain about clients.
  • Be conservative: Avoid swear words, off-color jokes, and comments about religion, race, politics and other potentially inflammatory topics.

If you can be socially savvy set instead of socially creepy, social marketing can work to your company’s advantage. The new information social media provides can be used to build a deeper connection with your potential clients. When in doubt, try putting on their shoes.  Since you too are a social media user, the way you’d feel about an interaction can serve as a good barometer on whether you are on target, or a little off-base.

Laura Horton is a marketing manager for Pardot.

[Image via Arman Zhenikeyev/Shutterstock]

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