Commercialism is as out of place in the social realm as selling to friends at a party.

A whole set of customs and unwritten rules, developed over untold generations of people conversing with each other, govern how we interact with others. When you discuss something with a friend, colleague, loved one, or stranger you adhere to these customs even without thinking. Don’t interrupt. Listen first, show an interest. Respond to what others are saying.

But there are subtler principles, as well. Suppose, for instance, a good friend were to ask your help in getting a job at the company where another friend of yours is a the MD. All he really wants is an introduction. He’s your friend, and he would certainly do the same for you. But what if, in asking for this favor, your friend also offered you R500 to make the introduction? Wouldn’t you be totally put off by this? Maybe he’s not really your friend after all, you might think, because this certainly isn’t how friends deal with friends.

This hypothetical situation perfectly illustrates one of the most important differences between how we interact in a commercial setting versus in a social setting, because different rules apply in each setting. But failing to make this distinction can easily trip up a business when it tries to deal with social media simply as a new channel for marketing, because business tactics that make perfect sense in the commercial domain just don’t apply in the social domain.

There are many reasons, for instance, why people spend time documenting their opinions online for other people they have no connection with, or improving software they have no commercial interest in. Empathy is one good reason, but there are additional motivations at work, too, many of them more akin to pure self-interest. We enjoy sharing our perspective or ideas, for instance. Some of us feel fulfilled by offering helpful advice, and some of us get a thrill from influencing others’ opinions. If you’re a revolutionary protester in the Middle East, you want the world to know what you’re going through. In addition to a satisfying sense of accomplishment, you can earn the respect of others, you can validate your own importance and significance, and you can improve your personal status. One reason often given by computer programmers for volunteering their efforts to an open-source project, for instance, is simply “control over my own work”—something more difficult to obtain from working at the direction of an employer.

Take your pick of motives, but very few of us would change our point of view or announce it to others in exchange for compensation, and most of us would consider it insulting to be offered money to do so. Crass commercialism is simply out of place in such social interactions. You can’t buy your friends like you buy your groceries, and you can’t buy your social media exposure like you buy your advertising.

While offering cross-sell deals and other products to email newsletter subscribers is fine, research has taught us if you try to make such offers to Facebook friends, a large number of them take offense. And the danger is not just a lower response rate but a negative one, because marketing offers, when made in the social space, can actually generate ill will.

Forget ROI. Marketing in the social space is digital word of mouth where endorsement is freely given and will produce results over time BUT if your service or product is not up to scratch you can also experience a groundswell of negative results to your brand so plan carefully and ‘listen’ first.

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