Friday, May 08, 2009

Social Media: Ask Permission to Join the Conversation First or You Just Might Get Your Ass Kicked!

My agency friend Wendy Blackburn (CORR: Jim Dayton; see comments) cited "an expert in marketing communications and PR strategy" who compared social media with a high school lunchroom in her post, "Social Media: It's Your Conversation."

"Social media is a lot like a high school cafeteria, each group with their unique interests sitting at their prescribed table discussing what's relevant to them," said Blackburn.

When the conversation turns to your product, Wendy advises pharma clients "it is your conversation. Whether you want to own it or not, it's yours."

Wendy provides good advice for how to engage in the conversation:
  1. First, listen.
  2. Second, learn.
  3. Finally, answer.
IMHO, Wendy left out one important step: Asking permission to join as in "Mind if I join you?"

That, for example, is how Pfizer joined the Sermo discussion (see"Sermo CEO Talks About Pfizer Collaboration" and "Pfizer has a Gold Mine in Sermo!").

In the commercial e-mail world we have a rule called "double opt-in" to make sure that the recipient really intends to get bombarded by commercial e-mail. Double opt-in is kind of like asking for permission and making sure we have it.

Asking for permission should also be a rule for marketers wishing to join in social media discussions. Just as in a high school lunchroom, if you do not ask to join THEIR conversation, you might just get YOUR ass kicked!

When I attend industry conferences, for example, I always follow the proper social etiquette at the luncheon and ask "mind if I join you" when I select a table to sit at. Then THEIR conversation can become MINE.

Pharma marketers who wish to make someone else's conversation theirs should abide by the following rules, which I modified from Wendy's abridged list:
  1. First, listen.
  2. Second, ask permission to join.
  3. Third, learn.
  4. Finally, join in.
I'm sure Wendy would agree.


  1. Hi John. I love your addition to the list - definitely good social media etiquette.And your cafeteria graphic made me laugh. I can't take credit for the blog post, however.Credit goes to Jim Dayton, our emerging media director. (Because giving credit where credit is due is also good etiquette)
    See you in the cafeteria!

  2. Hi John. I also appreciate your addition to the list. However, ask yourself, how many people ask you before they leave a comment to a blog post? (I didn't) How many people ask before they start a blog? How many people ask before they start a thread on a message board? No, most times people just assume they have something relevant to say in the social media arena and they say it. Not to say it wouldn’t be nice or polite for people to ask, I think it would be great. It’s just that most people don’t. And as for pharma, if they genuinely have something to contribute to the community, the likelihood of getting burned is greatly reduced. Like you've said on a few occasions on your blog, it is when companies try to use social media as another traditional channel to broadcast a marketing message they get into trouble. Social media is a conversation. Unfortunately, it hasn't quite made it to the level of industry luncheon. Maybe someday soon.

  3. My blog -- and most blogs -- are different than, say, discussion groups set up by patients who may own the site. Or they may use a site owned by a third party. That's what I mean by "social networks."

    I guess the "permission" I had in mind was an initial post by the pharma agent that identified who they are, what their reason is for joining the conversation, and assurances about being a good member of the community (ie, obeying the rules set by the community). Something like that should be the first step.

    Sure, with blogs, go right ahead and post without the need for an initial post like I just described. Still, you should identify yourself. There's been many times when pharma agents (eg, PR people) have disguised themselves as a "typical" patient when I know full well that they are working for an agency with a bias.

    So, if not "ask permission" then there should be a rule about being authentic and transparent. THAT's a real problem for pharma marketers. It's like they are not wired for it!


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