When Does Social Media Marketing Become Spam?

Is it spam when you submit your own content to a social news site? Is it spam if you have your friend submit the content? Is it spam if your friend submits content when you didn’t specifically ask them to? Where’s the line between marketing and spam?

Earlier this week a thread started at Webmaster-Talk developed into a discussion of these very questions. Thread starter John posted to let everyone know he had the moderators of his forum submit the site to StumbleUpon and the result was a few hundred visits. John wanted to share his discovery with the WT forum in the hopes it could help drive traffic to the sites of other members.

It didn’t take long before John was being lumped in with spammerkind, but was it really spam? Maybe, maybe not.

I’ve known John on the forum for a few months and in all that time I’ve always found him to be an honest person. I don’t believe it even occurred to John that submitting his own content to the site would be considered wrong. The intention here was not to spam.

The submission clearly notes that a friend’s site is being submitted.

my friends site has some games on it and stuff go check it out

The site in question does have games and stuff. It’s an honest review. So is it spam just because it was submitted by someone associated with John’s site?

If you look at John’s profile (Goheadtry) at SU his activity has mainly been to promote his own site and from StumbleUpon’s TOS

Accounts created with the primary intention to promote a product or service are considered SPAM

It does seem like John is pushing the TOS of his account. My hunch is that John is being more naive than spamming, but where exactly is the line between social media marketing and spam.

The idea behind most social voting sites is that people add content they think is worth sharing with the community. If the community likes it they vote it up so more in the community will see it. If they don’t like the content it gets voted down where few will see it again. Won’t the same happen with John’s content regardless of who submitted it?

The question of where marketing crosses over into spam is one of those ask 100 people get a 100 different answers questions. The line moves for each of us. For me it’s all about respecting and contributing to the community, much like the etiquette for leaving comment links. If your content contributes to the community then it’s fine to submit it yourself or ask someone you know to submit. As long as you contribute content to the site that isn’t your own and participate honestly in the system I see no reason why you can’t drop in a page from your site when it’s appropriate.

The community around the site will be the final arbiter. Spam on Digg might not be spam on Sphinn. Digg mistrusts marketers. Sphinn is primarily made up of marketers.

Marketing is not spam by definition, though many seem to equate one with the other by default. It all depends on the context. What is appropriate in one place might not be appropriate in another, but you need that context to make the determination.

Where do you see the line? Not necessarily in John’s specific case, but in general. Where does social media marketing cross over into spam? Is it about intentions? Respect for the community? Or is any attempt to market yourself spam?

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  1. Let’s face it – stumble upon a few pages submitted under a certain topic and if the content is garbage we quickly hit thumbs down and the ‘next’ button. Smart marketing is putting your content in front of people who want to see it. Whether someone is spamming or not is irrelevant, they will never reach their goal of quality traffic taking the ‘shotgun’ approach to bringing in visitors. Great summary of the real situation.

  2. I know John. That’s why I’ve been defending you since I first came across your thread. I think you’re an honest person and I’ve thought since the beginning your intentions were always good.

  3. Nice to see you hear DaveBob. I see it a lot like you do. Calling it spam or not is irrelevant since the community will generally figure it out quick enough. That doesn’t mean there isn’t spam going on. A lot of social media marketing comes down to manipulating people as opposed to algorithms.

    Smart marketing is just like you say. Get the content people want to see in front of them when they want to see it.

  4. Wow, I’ve never really thought about this before.

    I guess for me, the line is drawn this way. If all you’re doing is relentlessly promoting your own stuff, if your comments on other people’s blogs and forums and such is always devoted to promoting whatever your particular site or blog is, I consider that spam.

    If you’re working to be a part of the community and try to make substantive contributions that further the discussion and, in the course of doing that mention your own work that, to me, is acceptable. Let’s face it, we’re all trying to promote whatever it is we do. I just think there’s a gracious way to do that, and an in your face, graceless way to do that. I prefer to be graceful when I can.

  5. We are not talking about a shout out over the phone or radio. To post a comment or participate in a community is subject to the rules of that arena. If people on MySpace think you are marketing with too much pressure, they WILL let you know! But to market means going into areas where your customers MIGHT be as well. I make no denials that I add my website URL in hopes that maybe a boater will follow it back and buy my products. But I only want traffic from people that respect what I have to say. I think that is what the people at Webmaster-Talk did – they engaged a community on Stumbled, asking them to follow if they respected what was said.

  6. Kristine that’s exactly what runs through my mind when moderating forums. I try to look at the history of the member when I see them dropping a link. If it’s someone who’s shown they are more interested in marketing themselves than contributing to the forum the link and probably the post goes. If it continues the member goes too. If the person has generally be contributing I’ll let them get away with posting a few self-promoting links every once in awhile. My view is they’ve earned something back for contributing as long as they have. We all are promoting ourselves like you say. It’s a matter of how we go about promoting.

    That’s true Nathania, though there are times when promoting yourself goes over the top. The emails you get trying to sell you viagra every day are just promoting themselves. So are the telemarketers interrupting your dinner. I know it’s not the same thing, but I think people can be too aggressive in inappropriate places. But in general I do agree that if you’re marketing right then you’re targeting people who probably want to hear from you anyway.

    That’s how I see it too Mark. I think it’s the community that decides what is or isn’t spam. I’ll add my URL where it’s acceptable to do so, but if the community has made it clear they don’t care for that I won’t. There would be no reason to since it wouldn’t work anyway.

  7. I think it’s safe to use the rule of thumb that if you participate and add value to the site in other ways than promoting yourself, you should be able to link to your site if it’s relevant and helpful to other members.

    I’ve heard multiple times that moderators look at the members history to decide if they’re spamming. This goes to show if you take your time and actually want to be a member, you can market your site when appropriate.

    This is a rule of thumb, however, so don’t be surprised if a community has strict rules on spamming and gives you the boot.

    • That’s a good rule of thumb Jeff. I agree that participation is the key. If you add value then you can get more value back.

      I moderate a couple of forums and I definitely look at a member’s history when deciding if a link is ok or not. With members who have a history of contributing to the forum I’m much more likely to let a link stick. If someone’s first post is a link it’s usually deleted.

      And you’re right about it varying with the community. It’s always a good idea to understand the community first before thinking about how to market yourself through it.

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