Don’t Be A Social Media Beggar

The following is a guest post from Future Buzz community member John BoitnottIf you’d like to contribute thinking here, please read the guidelines.

It’s a simple fact of working in social media that relationships can form out of reciprocal behavior. This is expressed in many ways. Perhaps the most famous (or at least simplest) of these is in the practice of “voting up” peoples’ stories on a social bookmarking site, because it insures that your story will get votes as well.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As social media marketers interact with their contacts, friends and business associates each day, they make up a kind of “social media stock exchange,” with the more viral stories becoming the biggest “gainers” in the day’s trading.

Part of this is born out of the front pages of social bookmarking sites, where millions of people a week come to get their news or “meme” fix. But a lot more of it is born out of who knows who. People often ask me if I know writers at any publications who might be willing to write about their product or service. One popular question is, “Can you help me promote my product in some way?” I am often asked if I know anyone who is an “expert” on say, Tumblr or some other social network/bookmarking site. I am often asked if I know how best to promote pieces of content on such sites.

This is all fine, and is to be somewhat expected, in the fast paced world of content creation, site monetization and social promotion. The idea of paying it forward is admirable too. But the simple fact of the matter is that if you’re going to ask folks for significant help, you have to be ready to give back significantly. In my mind, this is somewhat loosely defined as “teaching someone how to fish.” I can give a vote here or a vote there because that’s the equivalent of providing a meal. Any more than that, and you’re giving someone the ability to make the meal themselves. That’s going too far. If you want to know how to do it yourself, teach yourself or pay someone in some way for the knowledge.

The problem for me comes when you run into those who have no idea that they need to give in order to get (or simply don’t want to). I hate to put it this way, but these “social media beggars” populate the landscape in large numbers. By and large it’s OK for the random person who I don’t actually know to come along and ask for a vote here or a retweet there. That just comes with the territory. It gets to be a little much, however, when folks ask you to lend them extensive insight into how best to promote an item on StumbleUpon say, or if I can put them in touch with one of my contacts at a client publication, meanwhile they are not able to provide anything of value back.

I again hate to put it this way, because it may seem cutthroat. But when I have clients depending on me to drive traffic to their sites, or a company depending on me to find new clients, every bit of my time has worth. It must be spent based on priorities – not according to charity (even though charity is very worthwhile and I have definitely always been a social media philanthropist in this manner, perhaps more than I should).

Essentially what’s missing for some people who I encounter online is the acknowledgment that what needs to occur is a broadening and strengthening of the actual relationship, before significant thoughts and strategies can be exchanged.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m too nice. Always have been. My social media career has been littered with relationships that saw me offer up too much in terms of knowledge and experience, even connections, for those who didn’t deserve it or appreciate it in the end. For me the lesson has been to search for a balance. On one hand I believe you have to be generous. You should err on the side of being kind and giving to people. But, you have to watch out for yourself too. You don’t want to give so much, get nothing back, and then watch as bitterness forms inside of you because you realize how much you were used.

So, to all of us who dwell online, I say, don’t be a social media beggar. Develop your areas of expertise. Have something to offer, and be willing to offer it.

Learn how to read the types of people you meet and get to know in the social media space. Try to forge real, long lasting relationships based on actual care for the other person. That will decrease the odds that you are giving information to someone who isn’t willing to help back. And remember — getting something back doesn’t always have to actually happen. You must decide whether you need that from someone once you get to know them and attempt to work with them in online marketing.

Once you start to see that a relationship becomes imbalanced though, that you are always being asked for things, and not getting anything in return, then it’s time to bail and move away from the person. There’s plenty of other people online who aren’t users. Go out and find them.

One of a small group of social media consultants with a background in the newsroom, John Boitnott consults with a variety of sites and publishers on how to build their popularity on the Internet. Leveraging social networks such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Digg, Reddit and StumbleUpon, he helps direct millions of page views each month. John has worked for NBC and Village Voice. John is currently Vice President of Business Development at Hasai Inc.

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