Responsive or Creepy?

Thunder rumbles in the distance.  The candle light flickers.  Gather closer children, gather close.  The midnight hour draws close and it is time for a tale that will send shivers down your spine and creep you out like no other.  A tale of a creature that lurks, listening to your every word.  In the shadows it waits, biding its time.  It may pass you by once, twice even, but if you make the fatal mistake of tweeting its name thrice, then it strikes.  The brand manager.

(cue dramatic flash of lightning)

There was a time when our idle conversations were just that.  They were transitory in nature.  If you were not physically there to hear the conversation then it was gone; residing in the memories of the participants or faded into the aether.

Technology has allowed these conversations to be preserved beyond their initial position in time and space, and what’s more to allow others to join in and participate.

The idle conversation that would have occurred over the back fence now extends around the globe and can draw participants days, weeks and months after the initial statements.

Search and aggregation provide the means of sifting through all the miscellaneous missives and finding just those that matter.

With the growing adoption of these tools and a trend towards public disclosure, the idle conversation becomes a treasure trove for companies and brands willing to listen.  How are people using your product?  What do they think about it?  What do they think about the brand?  It’s all out there amongst a sea of tweets, blog posts, forum discussions and blog posts.  Every idle mention of your brand is there to be discovered, examined and evaluated.

But it’s not a one-way flow of information.  Anyone can join into these conversations.  Including you.

Someone is blogging about problems with your product.  You can be there.  Someone is podcasting about how much they love your service.  You can be there.  Someone is tweeting that they don’t know whether to buy Brand X or Brand Y.  You can be there.  What an amazing power for the brand manager: the ability to suddenly materialize out of thin air and proclaim the wonders and benefits of your brand.

But hold on there.  Not so fast.  Before you go beaming down into that dinner party to offer folks a chance to squeeze the Charmin or hop into that backyard bbq to proclaim the health implications of smoking or drop into the coffee shop just to tell folks you’re brilliant, you need to know that with your new found powers come great responsibility.  You have the power to enhance your brand like never before, but you also have the ability to really creep people out and forever turn them off.

Go away!  Stop following me!     'But I'm just trying to help'  Go AWAY!!!

Here’s how to avoid turning you and your brand into the next creep:

Wait for an invitation (or a gesture that is invitation-like).
When a person makes a positive gesture of affinity, such as friending, following, tracking back or outright asking “is (your brand) on (social media platform of choice)?”, then they are clearly issuing an invitation. Step up and joint them in conversation.

Questions can be an invitation to engage, statements are not.
If someone is asking ‘how much sugar is in a Jookie Soda‘, then it’s fair game for the Jookie brand manager, or member of the Jookie team, to pop in and provide an answer.  Not so much an invitation to follow, friend, poke, nudge, share blood type or bank card PIN numbers.  They had a question.  You had an answer.  The social transaction is done.  Stop lurking and move on until they tell you otherwise.

If someone just remarks on your brand, ‘Hot today, think I might grab a Jookie Soda‘, then popping out of nowhere will not only come across as creepy, but needy and just a tad desperate.

It’s okay to correct statements about your brand – but only when they’re really off.
If someone states a clearly incorrect fact about your brand, you should step forward to correct and then engage as long as necessary.  Focus on the most egregious errors.  Be able to provide links – preferably to third party data and not your sales brochure – that help back up the truth.  This is about setting the record straight so that misinformation doesn’t fester.  Don’t try and correct someone on a fact if you don’t actually know the real answer and don’t even think of correcting someone if they are actually right.

It’s not okay to challenge the opinion of random strangers.  Go pick a fight on your own time.
Your job is to manage your brand, not other people’s minds.  If they are not already amongst your network, they haven’t asked a question and they simply have an opinion about your brand, then it’s not your place to argue them into submission or cajole them into changing their minds.  There is nothing to be gained and there is a great deal to lose. You weren’t invited to that conversation.  Just accept that there are going to be people on the Internet who are ‘wrong‘.  Let it go.

Opinions favourable to the brand may be interpreted as an invitation to connect, but even then, tread lightly.

What happened five minutes before they said your name matters.
Before jumping in to engage, take a few minutes to learn the history. Have you talked to them before?  Have they talked about your brand before?  What was said?  At the very least, take a minute to scan their last few posts, tweets or updates.  You don’t want to be leaping in to engage if you don’t fully understand the context.  There are all kinds of levels of inappropriateness that can arise from that sort of behaviour.  Unlike the dinner party where you have no idea what was said before your arrival, the online conversation gives you a chance to rewind and learn all the relevant details before you open your mouth.

Just because they’re your friend here, doesn’t mean they’re your friend there.
People use different networks for very different reasons.  Unless there is an explicit invitation offered to join their other networks, don’t take an engagement on one platform to be an invitation to engage on others.  A question asked on twitter shouldn’t be answered on Facebook.  A private message shouldn’t be responded to publicly.  If you feel it necessary to respond on a different platform, ask permission to do so.  Otherwise, respect people’s spaces and engage with them on their terms, not yours.


  1. I’ve had a number of positive experiences with brands responding to my ramblings.

    A recent example of “the right way”: while watching TV, I recognized a guest actress but couldn’t figure out what show I knew her from. As I usually do in these situations, I queried my network. Within minutes I got a response from a promoter of the show letting me know who the actress was and where I knew her from. Curiosity sated, I could move on with my life. The exchange was simple, to the point with no expectation of further unnecessary engagement – ie: no pitch to buy Season 1 on DVD, etc.

    My tweet:

    The response:

  2. Brands are only going to increase the amount that they communicate with customers, and customers will get used to it. I think the majority of them appreciate it.

    Comcast did nothing wrong. It’s using social media the way it should be used, to listen and respond.

    Just like in real life, you can’t make everyone happy. Whoever runs the networking channels for any business will give it a personality that will rub some people the wrong way. Not a big deal. That’s the beauty of transparency, it’s real, it’s organic, can’t fake it.

  3. Rob Clark

    @Colin – that’s a great example of a person doing it right.

    @Veronica – I thought about not including the screenshots because I didn’t want to make this about any one company or individual. But it was just such a good example of well intended actions going awry that I couldn’t pass it by.

    On average, Comcast is doing a good job of identifying complaints and stepping in to provide customer service. But I have to disagree with you; in this instance they did wrong.
    The person didn’t want their help. In fact, she explicitly stated she didn’t want them to join the conversation.

    Listening isn’t blindly responding to a keyword mention. You don’t need people for that. A machine can manage that perfectly fine without us. Listening is hearing what’s being said and then responding accordingly.

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