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Human Potential in the Age of Exponential Tech

SES & Social Media Strategy: what happened to ethics?! (A rant)

I was all set to cover the Social Media Success panel at SES Toronto. I was excited to see how I could apply my New Media & Strategy background to generate higher traffic and ranking. Little did I know what would be said in that panel.

Details: It should have been called “What not to do in Social Media.”

Moderator: Mitch Joel, President, Twist Image


I was especially looking forward hearing Mitch Joel speak because I have been reading his blog for a while, and he is definitely one of the brightest voices in the Social Media & Marketing space. I also love his work at PodCamp. You should definitely subscribe to both his blog posts and his podcasts.

Anyway, a little into the session and I started to get a little puzzled. While Liana Evans had presented some actual examples of how certain companies had used the social media space to build a dialog with their consumers, what Marty Weintraub and Stephan Spencer had to say really disturbed me


The focus seemed to be on corporate strategies trying to get as many people as you can to subscribe to your social network profiles by almost tricking them or manipulating them.


Stephan Spencer spoke about a corporate MySpace tactic to building a large base of friends. He suggested to trick consumers into thinking that you were popular so that they would be more willing to add you to their contact list by to adding “Bands, celebrities and DJ’s because they’ll take anybody.” This will inflate the number of friends you have. Then, after a while, once your hapless consumers have joined, you can quietly remove the celebrities and bands leaving you with only your consumers.

At this point, I was visibly appalled and judging by the expression on his face, so was Mitch. Joey DeVilla, the who was also liveblogging echoed my sentiments. I couldn’t believe this was the advice that was being given to people! I mean seriously, so you’ve got two thousand friends but SO WHAT?

I always tell clients that it’s all about what you want to use the medium for that matters. So are you communicating with them? Do you want them to try or buy something?


Stephan also had a lot to say about “building credibility” on sites like Wikipedia, so that you can use the influence to negotiate with Digg Power users and other social networking superstars who will then push your content in exchange for you helping them out on. So in exchange for Digging your article, you’ll help them set up an article on wikipedia. That’s all fine and good but if you’re going to negotiate posting content based on a corporate agenda, then you’re going to lose all the “street cred” you’ve worked so hard to build. People will see your intentions aren’t authentic.

He even suggested heavily using the StumbleUpon feature to send it to all the contacts you’ve amassed because if you send it to a specific person, then they’ll have to view the URL before they can continue stumbling. It’s one thing if the site is interesting, but to do it in the name of raising rankings is annoying, and quite frankly short sighted.
Mitch tried to undo some of the damage but I think even he was unprepared for the what was said today. He was fabulous and gave some great advice on how to build authentic conversation which I will put in a following post along with the interview I did after the session.

My Take: Defending the Social Media Space

Here are my personal pillars of Social Media- and what I wish I could have told all those people in that room taking notes today. I say this as a blogger, a content creator, a consumer and a human being. I also say this in defense of the countless of corporations and people like Mitch, and Joey and Amber who are putting time and effort into creating truly value adding content to the web.

Social media is about meaningful conversation – do you run into a party where there are people you’ve never met and start screaming in their faces about something you’re selling or something that you want? No. (If you do, then you probably have bigger problems than social media strategy) What you do is probably walk in take a look around, listen to the conversations, approach different groups and then add something meaningful into the conversation. If you’re not bringing anything of value to the table, then you probably shouldn’t be saying anything at all.

Meaningful conversation takes trust- The old bait & switch doesn’t really work with people on the internet. At least not for long. You can’t pretend to care about what they’re saying and then a short while later reveal your true intent to sell them something or manipulate them. Trust means you give and take. You share what you know with others and help others when you can. Relationships both online and offline are forged by trust, and by a track record of authentic actions. You might be able to fool people in the short-term but the long term damage to your reputation might take longer than you think to fix.

Trust requires authenticity – Who you are online and offline should be pretty close. Don’t pretend to be something or someone that you’re not. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Authenticity means that when you engage me in conversation, that you have a pure intent. You are actually interested in what I have to say and value my conversation

The internet has a short attention span and a long memory. Be smart. Treat your consumers like idiots and they won’t stick around for long.

Comments: 14

  • Marty Weintraub

    June 19, 2008

    @Rahaf: Thanks for your coverage of this event. Even though we don’t completely agree, I appreciate your investment in time and heart.

    The hallmark of wonderful SEM conferences like SES Toronto is the delightful diversity of the panelists and possibility. Like him or not, Stephan is surly a consensus giant in our industry.

    I don’t want to drop a link in your blog so if you want to read my side of this discussion, please Google “SEO, Colored Hats & The Pollyanna Pissing Match.”

    We built aimClear Blog covering conferences and I never hesitate take umbrage when I do not agree. Good for you! The SEM world is truly served by scrutiny from bloggers such as yourself.

    I just bookmarked your feed and look forward to reading future rants. For a blog just started in March, this publication shows a lot of promise 🙂 . Best of luck.

  • Li Evans

    June 19, 2008


    great wrap up on the session. i hope that what I drove home was that using the tactics that was presented isn’t what social media is about, that at the heart of what was presented, I basically disagree with. really hope that people caught on that social media is about the conversation – not the links. it drives me nutz (yeah i know short drive!) that some of my colleagues just feel the absolute need to manipulate the social media space just for links, or power in a community when it’s not what its about at all.


  • Chris Estes

    June 19, 2008

    On Par! It is nice to see someone defending what social media is supposed to be not what it has become.

  • Sofia Vergara

    June 19, 2008

    Hey!…Man i just love your blog, keep the cool posts comin..holy Thursday . Sofia Vergara

  • Nicole Linkletter

    June 19, 2008

    Hi there…I Googled for american flag 4×6, but found your page about poetry…and have to say thanks. nice read.

  • Matt Bailey

    June 20, 2008


    I am a regular speaker at the SES conferences, but I was not able to make it to Toronto. There is a big division happening in the SEO industry, between the technical and the marketing elements (probably not the best division, but in general).

    The technical SEO’s like to focus in linking, almost at any cost, while (in my opinion) neglecting the needs of the user and ultimately a long-term relationship. I’ve been on many panels like yours where the advice centers on fooling the algorithms instead of improving the website and building a solid customer base. It’s very frustrating to hear advice that seems to be more relevant to a made-for-adsense site than a business website.

    Nothing has changed since the early days, there is still a big difference between a lot of traffic, and qualified traffic.

  • Doing what you can to contribute and add value to the community is the spirit of social media. If, as a by-product, you get link love for your efforts, then all is good with the world.

    It’s pretty simple: create great things and great people will talk about you and connect (and link to you).

  • Stephan Spencer

    June 20, 2008


    First let me explain why you didn’t hear me talk about the ethical must-haves of social media interaction (meaningful conversation, trust, etc.). We’re not supposed to overlap in content between panelists, My presentation was built to be the last one of the session. My topic was power user tips that augment or supplement the necessary prerequisites of creating great content, being a valuable member of the social site/community, and being authentic your interactions (rather than deceitful or dishonest). Unfortunately that’s not how the flow went. Not only were we a panelist short at the last minute (so some essential material didn’t get covered), but also Li requested she go last because her camera guy wasn’t available to record her presentation until the very end of the session. I think we’d all agree that it would have been better if Li’s presentation preceded mine. As it was, it left the cornerstones of social media interaction unsaid until the very end. That was unfortunate as it probably gave folks such as yourself the wrong impression of where the focus lies. I’d never purport that social media marketing is all about tricks and shortcuts, it’s mostly about being adding value in a real way, with the tricks and shortcuts added on to give you that little edge over your competition.

    Secondly, and in line with that thought, one needs to exercise restraint and good judgment in the use of guerrilla tactics. One shouldn’t just go hog wild and use every “trick in the book” and do it to excess. For example, sending a good friend a site with the StumbleUpon toolbar is totally acceptable, but sending an army of “friends” that you don’t know a truckload of URLs to sift through is spammy, unethical and reckless. I never proposed in my session that anyone do the latter. Another example… hopefully you can get to a critical mass of friends on MySpace without adding low-value friends (low value as in not likely to have meaningful interactions with you and not in your target market) such as all the bands and musicians that you like. But if you are at only a handful of friends and can’t seem to get over the hump, it’s nice to know that there’s something you can do besides just sit and wait for people to friend you; you can proactively friend bands that you like. Granted an artist like Weird Al Yankovic isn’t going to be terribly interactive with you, so at some point in the future you’re likely to remove that friend from your ranks. Incidentally, that particular tip of friending bands came from a jewelry retailer I interviewed for an article I wrote for MarketingProfs last year ( Here’s the quote:

    …when starting off, you need to get Friends. It’s kind of a bragging right on MySpace. If you have too few friends, it’ll be tough to get the good ones—the ones who will end up buying from you. So, before you go after those, get a few hundred “bad” friends—bands are the easiest. They’ll give you a respectable number on your Friends list, and will leave comments on your page—giving a little realism boost to your profile—making the addition of friends of the “good” type that much easier.

    Hope this helps.


  • Stephan Spencer

    June 20, 2008

    One last thing I forgot to mention in my last comment… the focus on gaining links through social media was because my topic was around the intersection of social media and SEO. For a search engine conference like Search Engine Strategies Toronto, a social media session really does need to have a tie-in somewhere to the main conference topic. I never said in my presentation that your main driver for participating in social media is the links. My apologies if I gave you that impression. Indeed the links are mainly a byproduct of being a good social citizen, but they’re still an essential byproduct nonetheless if you are an SEO. 🙂

  • Jon

    June 23, 2008


    As you mentioned consumers are not idiots and eventually they will figure out you or your brand is not being genuine. Once that happens and you lose that trust it is very difficult to get it back. Before unethical/borderline ethical or misleading online tactics are implemented you have to ask yourself is an extra link or contact worth your reputation.

    – J

  • Why Social Media Inauthenticity Hurts Everyone…

    Last week I attended the Search Engine Strategies Conference in Toronto. While many of the presentations were interesting and useful, the session that stuck with me most was the very lively and somewhat controversial panel on Social Media Success……

  • John Clement

    August 2, 2010

    Been scrambling around the web looking for a clear explanation of the ethics of social media marketing. This has been the most immediately helpful.
    Thank you.

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