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The Limits of Social Networking Surrogacy

by Shonali Burke on March 25, 2010

As someone who promotes businesses on and offline, I look at social media tools and sites a little differently. My friends know this, and I know that they know this. And yet, their questions about how to promote their businesses are still very strange to me.

Maybe it’s not the questions they ask – maybe it’s the answers they expect.

I’ll give you an example.

Recently, a friend asked me if I thought it would be a good idea to hire someone to create new Twitter accounts, and add 500 followers a day to their profile. The price was over $1,000 a month, and the question was more about whether the price tag was worth it. I think that’s beside the point, and answered accordingly.

Let’s back up

Before I tell you what I said, I want to pause for a minute and clarify what we’re talking about here, for anyone who might not be familiar with it:

Twitter is a communications system that functions as a cross between a huge, open IM chat room, and blogging by snippet, or micro-blogging. On it, you can narrow down the flood of information by choosing to participate or monitor conversations through the people whose conversations streams you pay attention to, or follow. You can also choose to follow them by categories, or search.

The specifics of those are less important here so I won’t go into detail about that.

In addition to following other conversations, your conversation stream can also be followed or observed. Some people use the conversation stream just to communicate, others to network, brand and promote themselves. Companies like Comcast have teams that do this together.

Conversation or a tower of Babel?

What you end up with is an ever-active incoming wave of asynchronistic chatter on your default homepage that is made meaningful or useful to you based on the choices you’ve made of who to follow.

If you choose well, you have a flow of content that is useful to you in terms of connection, entertainment, information sources, even web links. And you also have access to people you can have useful discourse with, and the data they’ve shared as an instant icebreaker.

And vice versa.

Conversation in context

So to put my friend’s question into context, he was basically asking me, should he pay other people to create channels of information streams on his behalf?

And my answer was no. Whether this was a group for him to purely broadcast to, or one he actually intended to interact with, the answer was no.

Not because I’m a social media purist, who believes that the experience of two beings communing on a topic should be organic, with no artificial means of connecting them. If anything, it leans more towards my streak of marketing purism, which believes you should do anything effective, logical and legal to promote your business.

But let’s remember we’re talking about social media, where transparency and disclosure are not just ethical, they’re expected. Just ask the FTC.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Now, it’s one thing to need help and get it from a reliable, experienced source. Agencies and consultants provide this service all the time, like many of us here at WGB. But it’s quite another thing to try to “game the system,” and secure huge numbers of followers/friends/fans overnight. Because, really, what good will that do you, other than give you an ego boost?

The limits of social networking surrogacy

Having tens of thousands of followers has been proven to be ineffective as a platform for broadcasting. A popular blogger, Jeremy Shoemacher, who had 30,000 followers at the time, said that his tweets produced less than 5% of his traffic. Just because he has 30,000 followers does not mean that’s why he’s getting traffic from Twitter to his site.

He’s not the first to say so and he won’t be the last.

The numbers don’t matter for the reason you think they do, in Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else.

Quality over quantity

So my first point is, it’s not getting the right number of people that helps you grow your business using Twitter, it’s having the right people. You want people who are influential, who take action and are in your targeted market.

Could a service find them for you? Maybe.

And should you let another service set up your Facebook fan page and build it for you – why not? (Are you the one who built your website?)

That’s fine. What I’m saying that outsourcing the connections you make once those accounts are built is to do so at your own peril. And then you’d still have to un-do all the people they found that were wrong, or you’d have a pretty useless incoming stream.

And you’d still need to create content for your outgoing streams that was targeted to the created group, or it would all be for naught.

You might as well increase your followers by 500 a day yourself, if the numbers are that important to you.

My second point would be that you could, in fact, create a single Twitter account that got 500 new followers a day. With the right budget for promotion, and an hour a day, I could have 100,000 followers inside of three months. But I don’t.

I’d rather just get connected to the 100 – 1,000 people among those 100k who have all the influence and make all the moves. Those and my audience are the people who matter. The people who talk to me who I have time to talk back to – I want them to have conversations with me, not a staff member, as long as it’s possible. And if they ever have to talk to someone on staff instead of me, then I want them to know that they are.

Because if I meet that person offline, or they become a client, and refer to a conversation we had online, when they’re looking into my eyes, or hearing my voice on the phone, that spark of recognition, even fuzzy recall, can’t be faked.

Authenticity’s not for sale

There’s just no point to participating in social media if you aren’t going to do it yourself. You’re new and under-confident? That’s fine, lots of people are. Take your time and learn about it… and slowly start engaging.

Because, remember, you can’t buy authenticity.

Why are you engaging in social media?

You’re participating in social media so you can have conversations with people. You’re having the conversations so you can learn about people. You’re learning about those people so you can know how to:

  • meet their needs
  • provide customer service
  • help them find solutions to their problems through your product or service
  • connect them to others in your social circle
  • get them to share your link, and/or
  • get them to connect you to people who will do one of the above for you.

It’s all in building leverage through these relationships, and if you’re not building real relationships, you’re not building real leverage.

Is every single interaction going to benefit you? Not necessarily, sometimes you’ll just make a friend, but since when is that a bad thing?

But that’s why you can’t successfully completely outsource the friend-making part of social networking either.

If the person interacting on your behalf leaves your organization, and the person they’ve connected you to sends you an email or you meet in person, you’re not going to know their preferences, or remember little things about them, because you don’t know them.

It would be like sending out an assistant to do your networking for you in person, or sending your secretary to give your speeches.

I mean, you can tell when someone’s assistant sent you a note rather than the person themselves, right? If they are important to you, and you look up to them, you can tell.

It’s the same vice versa.

The difference between help and surrogacy

Now, I’m not saying that you absolutely have to do every single aspect of your social networking and social media life yourself. If you’re a popular personality, and you’re getting 100 requests a day for connection, it might do good to have an assistant go through and filter the spam requests out of your box.

If you have a big company like Network Solutions, should you find your own Shashi Bellamkonda to “be the face” behind your social web outreach? Of course. Empower a loyal employee to be the connector, yes. Export your persona to someone else to essentially lie on your behalf? Not so much.

So to answer my friend’s question, the cost is not the point, it’s whether you should do it or not.

Should you get a surrogate to take care of all aspects of social media? No. You might as well not do it. The power of using the social aspects of the web to grow your business is in authentically sharing your transparent self.

Not all of it, that would be creepy…!

Yet, certainly enough to make the human connection we all crave resonate deeply enough to carry out of the web and into the rest of your business life.

Craving more?

Image: Vladimir Petkov, Creative Commons

Tinu Abayomi-PaulGuest contributor Tinu Abayomi-Paul rescues web sites from obscurity and shows business people how to generate leads and traffic from the web. Founder of Free Traffic Tips and Ask Tinu, she is widely published online as an ever effective, end-to-end website promotion specialist — on Web Pro News, Search Engine Guide, and more. Ready to engage on Twitter as @tinu, she’s known to say: “You can’t knock my hustle.”

As someone who promotes businesses on and offline, I look at social media tools and sites a little differently. My friends know this, and I know that they know this. And yet, their questions about how to promote their businesses are still very strange to me.

Well maybe it’s not the questions they ask — maybe it’s the answers they expect. I’ll give you an example.

Recently, a friend asked me if I thought it would be a good idea to hire someone to create new Twitter accounts, and add 500 followers a day to their profile. The price was over $100 a month, and the question was more about whether the price tag was worth it. I think that’s beside the point, and answered accordingly.

Before I tell you what I said, I want to pause for a minute and clarify what we’re talking about here. Twitter is a communications system that functions as a cross between a huge, open IM chat room and blogging by snippet, or micro-blogging. On it, you can narrow down the flood of information by choosing to participate or monitor conversations through the people whose conversations streams you pay attention to, or follow. You can also choose to follow them by categories, or search.

The specifics of those are less important here so I won’t go into detail about that.

In addition to following other conversations, your conversation stream can also be followed or observed. Some people use the conversation stream just to communicate, others to network, brand and promote themselves. Companies like Comcast have teams that do this together.

What you end up with is an ever-active incoming wave of asynchronistic chatter on your default homepage that is made meaningful or useful to you based on the choices you’ve made of who to follow. If you choose well, you have a flow of content that is useful to you in terms of connection, entertainment, information sources, even web links. And you also have access to people you can have useful discourse with, and the data they’ve shared as an instant icebreaker.

And vice versa.

So to put my friend’s question into context, he was basically asking me, should he pay other people to create channels of information streams on his behalf? And my answer is no. Whether this was a group for him to purely broadcast to, or one he actually intended to interact with, the answer was no.

Not because I’m a social media purist, who believes that the experience of two beings communing on a topic should be organic, with no artificial means of connecting them.

If anything, it leans more towards my marketing streak of purism, who believes you should do anything effective, logical and legal to promote your

business.

And having tens of thousands has been proven to be ineffective as a platform for broadcasting. A popular blogger, Jeremy Shoemacher, who had 30,000 followers at the time, said that his tweets produced less than 5% of his traffic. Just because he has 30,000 followers does not mean that’s why he’s getting traffic from Twitter to his site.

He’s not the first to say so and he won’t be the last- the numbers don’t matter for the reason you think they do, in Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else.

So my first point is, it’s not getting the right number of people that helps you grow your business using Twitter, it’s having the right people. You want people who are influential, who take action and are in your targeted market. Could a service find them for you? Maybe. But then you’d still have to un-do all the people they found that were wrong, or you’d have a pretty useless incoming stream.

And you’d still need to create content for your outgoing streams that was targeted to the created group, or it would all be for naught. You might as well increase your followers by 500 a day yourself, if the numbers were that important to you.


My second point would be that you could, in fact, create a single Twitter account that got 500 new followers a day. With the right budget for promotion, and an hour a day, I could have 100,000 followers inside of three months. But I don’t.

I’d rather just get connected to the 100 – 1000 people among those 100k who have all the influence and make all the moves. Those and my audience are the people who matter. The people who talk to me who I have time to talk back to – I want them to have conversations with me, not a staff member, as long as it’s possible. And if they ever have to talk to someone on staff instead of me, then I want them to know that they are.

Because if I meet that person offline, or they become a client, and refer to a conversation we had online, when they’re looking into my eyes, or hearing my voice on the phone, that spark of recognition, even fuzzy recall, can’t be faked.


There’s just no point to participating in social media if you aren’t going to do it yourself.

There’s just no reason, just don’t do it at all. You can’t buy authenticity.

You’re participating in social media so you can have conversations with people. You’re having the conversations so you can learn about people. You’re learning about those people so you can know how to

  • meet their needs
  • provide customer service
  • help them find solutions to their problems through your product or service
  • connect them to others in your social circle
  • get them to share your link, and/or
  • get them to connect you to people who will do one of the above for you.


It’s all in building leverage through these relationships, and if you’re not building real relationships, you’re not building real leverage. Is every single interaction going to benefit you? Not necessarily, sometimes you’ll just make a friend, but since when is that a bad thing?

But that’s why you can’t successfully outsource the friend-making part of social networking either.

If the person interacting on your behalf leaves your organization, and the person they’ve connected you to sends you an email or you meet in
person, you’re not going to know their preferences, or remember little things about them, because you don’t know them.

It would be like sending out an assistant to do your networking for you in person, or sending your secretary to give your speeches.

I mean, you can tell when someone’s assistant sent you a note rather than the person themselves, right? If they are important to you, and
you look up to them, you can tell.

It’s the same vice versa.

Now, I’m not saying that you absolutely have to do every single aspect of your social networking and social media life yourself. If you’re a popular personality, and you’re getting 100 requests a day for connection, it might do good to have an assistant go through and filter the spam requests out of your box.

If you have a big company like Network Solutions, should you find your own Shashi Bellamkonda to “be the face” behind your social web outreach? Of course. Empower a loyal employee to be the connector, yes. Export your persona to someone else to essentially lie on your behalf? Not so much.

So to answer my friend’s question, the cost is not the point, it’s whether you should do it or not.

Should you get a surrogate to take care of all aspects of social media? No. You might as well not do it. The power of using the social aspects of the web to grow your business is in authentically sharing your transparent self.

Not all of it, that would be creepy. :)


Yet, certainly enough to make the human connection we all crave resonate deeply enough to carry out of the web and into the rest of your business life.

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