Social media self-promotion: Resisting the temptation

November 29, 2011: 2:04 PM ET

A recent study suggests that media outlets are poor social media sports, using networks strictly to promote their own work. But isn't that what everyone using social media is asked to do?

By Megan Hustad, contributor

FORTUNE – Whether it's polite dinner party conversation, a networking event, or sharing an item on Facebook or Twitter, communication is an art. As with any medium, you have your masters and your dilettantes. Considering how relatively new the use of social media as a communications platform is, perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that even the pros' efforts are looking fairly amateurish.

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism, along with George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, released a report on the mainstream media's use of Twitter in the context of the social network's surprising growth. Initially dismissed by some as a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon catering to the ADHD set, Twitter was being used by 13% of "online Americans" as of June 2011. That's a big jump over the November 2010 numbers, when only 8% of wired Americans used the service.

The 13 major media outlets that Pew studied are riding this trend. In one week this past February, these institutions and the journalists they employ sent a combined 3,646 Tweets. After analyzing the content of these tweets, Pew concluded that the news outlets weren't doing it right. Ninety-three percent of their Tweets linked back to their own websites, and the "retweet" function was rarely used. (The New York Times (NYT), for instance, only generated original Tweets. Fox News (NWS) actually led in this arena, with 44% of their Tweets being retweets.)

The problem, as the study's authors saw it, was that these news outlets were using Twitter with a very "early days of the web" mentality, when "news organizations, worried about losing audience, rarely linked to content outside their own web domain." The media outlets mainly touted their own work.

But isn't that what everyone using Twitter is asked to do?

This tendency has a sibling in over-tweeting. By over-tweeting, I'm primarily concerned with quantity, not over-sharing. Over-Tweeters are on every day. They produce both the ridiculous ("Good morning") and the sublime ("I could solve a lot of the world's drought problems with a couple open-mouthed naps.") If you follow more than a few dozen people on Twitter, you are likely to encounter at least one person who pings the world with reminders of his existence 18 times a day.

Many if not most over-Tweeters think they're doing precisely what they ought to do. If you're immersed in an industry that pays you for your ability to persuade or influence -- and not, say, your ability to dry-clean sweaters -- then you are routinely told that you must be out there. You must have a website, Facebook page, LinkedIn profile, and tweet, and you'd be a fool not to take advantage of all these freely available platforms. There is even advice on what hours of the day are best for Tweeting.

It's enough to make one wonder why we should expect any balanced person to manage it all successfully. Oliver Burkeman, author of Help! and a columnist at The Guardian newspaper, told me he'd trained himself to avoid Twitter in the mornings or else, he admitted, the book he was under contract to write would never get written. To help him manage Twitter usage at other times, he used a kitchen timer. This was never his ambition, simply what he found himself forced to do after too many squandered hours.

Using Twitter to advance a professional agenda, and actually having the head space in which to conjure up Tweetable, agenda-advancing thoughts -- and give others' Tweets their due, that is, retweet -- is not as easy as the medium's boosters would have us believe. It requires a talent for self-promotion and a certain generosity of spirit and strategic planning and self-control and free time. No wonder cash-strapped news organizations haven't mastered it. They likely don't have the staff hours, let alone the budget.

Fighting for attention

Warning that an expanding Twitterverse might pose problems for a culture already tipsy off an endless stream of data is hardly new, however.

"In an information-rich world," the late scholar Herbert Simon wrote in 1971, "the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients."

In The Attention Economy, consultants Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck argued that the collective din of meetings, emails, voicemails, and faxes had led to widespread and destabilizing "organizational ADD." If you could command attention in such a cacophonous arena, you'd be fine. If you couldn't, then you needed to prepare for obsolescence, poverty, or both. Bear in mind, the authors made this argument in 2001, before the meteoric rise of the smartphone raised the stakes even higher. By 2009, BusinessWeek writer Jon Fine declared Twitter "the endpoint of the decline in the value of attention."

And yet more people are flocking to it. So where does that leave the Twitter user who still wants the few valuable Tweets that her favorite over-Tweeter sends out each day, but who is nonetheless nauseated by the suggestion that she needs to Tweet with "maximum impact"?

The best advice is not so different from what those news media outlets are being nudged to do:

1) Use Twitter to promote other people's work as much as one's own. It's possible that the world would be a better place if more individuals (and organizations) pushed their own agendas to the side on occasion and spent more time ginning up goodwill for friends, colleagues, even strangers.

2) Think beyond simple math. "Each additional Tweet lowers the average but increases their yield," said author and marketing expert Seth Godin. But, he quickly added, the long run favored those who knew when to silence themselves and when to broadcast.

Turning the noise down

For consultant Peter Bregman, who is author of the new book 18 Minutes, pondering the use and abuse of Twitter prompted more fundamental soul-searching. He says he Tweets, but "not well," a common disclaimer, I've found, among people cognizant of the pressure to have followers numbering in the six digits (Bregman has 3,000). "The world will take everything it can from you," he remarked, and while it is in the social network's best interest to have you spending two hours a day interacting with their technology, it is not necessarily in yours as well.

The pressure to be on Twitter, to think about Tweeting at optimal times of day, to track opens and retweets, reminded Bregman of a concern from his days working with American Express in the 1990s. The catchphrase of that consulting era was "share of wallet," i.e. how much of a consumer's disposable income passed through American Express's coffers. Today's arguably more sophisticated companies are looking for "share of mind." If the former sounds a little creepy to you, the latter should also. A technology that purports to connect us to one another is going to want its cut, and if the fee isn't priced in dollars (Twitter, like Facebook, is still nominally free), the cost is invariably psychic. "We live amid non-stop tension generated by the fear that we might be missing something," Bregman says.

So he recommends something akin to a spiritual practice. Remind yourself that it's okay to miss stuff. Where this fails, Bregman suggests building a wall around your Twitter use so that it doesn't distract you from other activities that might ultimately bring more pleasure or influence. He sets his watch to beep every hour during his workday, at which point he pauses for a full minute and asks himself two questions: Am I doing the work I want to be doing? Am I being the person I want to be? This reflection has helped him temper the competitive instincts that could easily lead to panicked over-Tweeting. But, he concluded, "the only way to really protect ourselves is not to look in the first place."

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