Introduction

Social media is a beautiful thing. The internet is finally living up to its potential as the first truly democratic medium. The traditional gatekeepers (to use a Seth Godin teNetworked Worldrm) of mass-media no longer control the flow of information. In fact, I would argue that the term “flow” of information will quickly fade into our linguistic past. Web 2.0 has introduced us all to the “currents” of information. Things are far less linear than they used to be. On the new web–the social web–information is carried on numerous currents, moving back and forth, and changing at the whim of immense social forces. This fundamental change in the mechanics of the dissemination of information has engendered, and is further propelled by, the evolution of social media. Entertainment can now be created by anybody and shared with everybody. The relative worth of a news story can now be voted upon by anyone who wishes to participate. It has never been easier to report on the news, to assert one’s opinion, or to spark controversy with unparalleled tools of demagoguery. The web is now a social creature.

This new social creature has rules. If you are a blogger, a user of the myriad social websites, or a plain old internet jockey, then you know these rules already. They combine to form a sort of codex of etiquette for the social media world. In fact, the blogoshpere is already rife with the proto-“Miss Manners” books of the social media age. You don’t have to look very hard to find lists of tips like:

  1. If you want to contact a blogger about featuring you, make sure you subscribe to them first. Read their stuff so you get a feel for who they are. Comment intelligently on their posts over the weeks that you are getting to know them. Only after you have built a rapport can you then approach them.
  2. Do not spam people. It will get you banned.
  3. Always respond to people who comment on your blog posts. This helps foster a relationship and will help increase subscribers.

Are these not the “Men should stand when a woman enters the room” of the digital age?

The Problem

Guy With SignThis new social web and the etiquette evolving within it have been a fascination of mine for some time. I guess you could say that it’s one of the reasons I do what I do. Of particular fascination to me is the paradox of self-promotion. One of the major rules of social media is “don’t promote yourself.” It is enforced with varying degrees of severity in different communities, and there are certainly places like MySpace where self-promotion is the apparent modus operandi. But when it comes to tools like Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Del.icio.us, Mixx, Sphinn, and others, the paradox becomes much more apparent. In many ways, it appears to be the digital extension of the real-world impoliteness of talking about one’s self. As my father always told me, “Don’t brag. Let your actions do the talking.” Wise words. However, the sheer enormity of the internet presents a problem with this way of thinking. Here’s my definition of the problem.

The Paradox of Self-Promotion with Social Media:

Social media generally frowns on self-promotion, in many cases admonishing outright those who practice it. But with the sheer numbers of new videos, posts, sites, pictures, and stories appearing each and every day, self-promotion is a necessity for anyone starting out and hoping to gain any sort of foothold.

The Solution

Painted Rubik’s Cube

I assert that self-promotion is vital to the launch of any new social media endeavor. Whether a marketer or an individual, whether starting a blog or making videos, you have to be your own #1 fan and evangelist. There are plenty of people out there who will love your content, but you have to help them notice it. There is nothing wrong with this, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. However, there are some things you can do to help obfuscate the paradox and take those vital steps to gaining a foothold in the wild west of the internet.

  1. Don’t Just Promote Yourself: I am starting with the most obvious one on purpose. I met someone on a forum the other day who was asking for people to Stumble his blog. I looked at his blog and then checked out his Stumble profile. His Stumble account was two months old (about as old as his blog) and in that time he had only Stumbled 27 pages. All 27 pages were his own blog posts. If he wants to use Stumble as a self-promotion tool then he better start acting like a real stumbler and promote the pages of others in addition to his own content. The same goes for any social bookmarking, news, or voting site. If you are trying to use Digg to get your blog noticed, you have to Digg other things as well. Embrace the tools and become a real user. This will not only increase your power as a user, but will vastly increase the potential for making friends and connections who will be more likely to vote on what you submit. I have even read some articles saying that you should not submit any of your own material for the first two months of your account. While I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules, I think it is very important to commit time and energy to your social media tools. USE the services, don’t ABUSE them.
  2. Pick Your Battles: There are more social sites than I can count on my fingers and toes. Hell, there are even more than I could count if I used your fingers and toes as well. While it is certainly a good idea to have sharing links to at least five on them on your blog, you really need to pick 2-3 to begin your self-promotion work. As I said in #1, you have to be a real user and vote for more than your own stuff. But, you can’t be a real user of more than three of these sites and still have much of a life left to do whatever it is that you want to promote in the first place. I know this because I tried to run my business while building multiple accounts and I cracked like an eggshell. Hopefully, when you have gained a loyal fan/reader/user/friend base, you will have plenty of people who can share your best stuff on the sites you are not on. Don’t spread yourself too thin.
  3. The Golden Ratio: I have a friend over at Mixx who says he has found that he can submit one of his own posts for every ten other things he submits without being seen as “spammy.” This is his golden ratio. I have another friend at Mixx whose ratio is more like 1:2. He submits his own stuff all the time and no one seems to care. What’s his secret? I have no idea. The important thing to realize is that you will have your own golden ratio. There are many factors to take into account such as: how many friends you have, what topics your content deals with, etc… You must experiment. Start with at least 1:10 and see if you can work your way down from there. My ratios are often more like 1:20 on Mixx and 1:40 on StumbleUpon. But that’s just because I spend a lot of time reading other bloggers and I like those sites, so I am naturally submitting a lot of things.
  4. Stop Shouting: Almost every social site has some form of the “shout.” Whatever it’s called on your site of choice, it is the way you can send a little message to other users that you are connected to, and I think it is the most abused tool in the social media world. I don’t care who you are, you cannot be so good at scrubbing the net that everything you find is worth sharing with everyone you know. Shouts work best when used in moderation. There are people on Digg who send me ten shouts a day. Multiply that by 10 friends and I have long ago reached my overload point. I have switched off. I don’t even look at shouts any more. The biggest favor you can do for yourself (especially when you are still submitting your own content from time to time) is to reserve your shouts for very special things. Make your shouts mean something because people are very good at noticing which of their friends seem to shout anything and everything.
  5. Study Your Playing Field: Some sites (such as Newsvine) say in their Terms of Use that users are not supposed to submit their own content. Other sites (such as Sphinn) welcome the submission of your own material and even encourage it because it allows for more accuracy in titling and tagging. The important thing is to know your sites. Know the rules (and the community sentiment) toward self-promotion for each site you use. This bit of work on the front end will save you a lot of headache down the line.
  6. Make Friends: I know it is hard to believe, but being social is a cornerstone of social media. Take a moment to let that sink in. Making friends has two main benefits. First, it can help increase the power of your account. While no one knows the exact algorithms of these sites, it is the popular belief that profiles with more friends/fans/groups/reviews/etc have more weight. Secondly (and most importantly), the friends you meet through the sharing of what you’re into are the most likely candidates to become submitters of your stuff. If you’re into SEO, and have an SEO blog, then make SEO friends and they just might like your stuff. It’s a great feeling when you see that a friend of yours from Sphinn added your new post to her del.icio.us.
  7. Full Disclosure: This last point has worked very well for me in the past, but it is based on having followed the previous six suggestions. It is never a bad idea to disclose that you are submitting your own material. This is a sort of preemptive strike at the would-be naysayers. As long as you are not submitting your own stuff all the time, many social media communities will be very tolerant (even receptive) to the submission of your own material as long as they feel you aren’t trying to deceive them. Social media users HATE being duped….or, better said, hate feeling like they were duped. Being transparent about your self-promotion allows you to get your stuff out there and ensure that it is properly tagged, while limiting the potential for negative response. I consider full disclosure to be a more effective and more sustainable alternative to the next suggestion.
  8. Alter-ego: Although I do not use this method, I would be remiss if I did not include it here. Many people would suggest that, in the beginning, you can circumvent the paradox of self-promotion by creating a secondary account for yourself on social sites that cannot be traced back to you. While this practice is exceedingly common, and many still recommend this solution, I think it is becoming increasingly obsolete. In addition, it violates the terms of service of many of these sites. The biggest downside though, is that having two accounts on the same site spreads you time and attention. You should be focusing on building one respected user, and the attention required to nurse a second user could be better used elsewhere. An alter-ego may be fun to test with, but don’t rely on it as your primary way to self-promote.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I think the acceptance of self-promotion within the social media space is increasing. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. The goal of anyone—be it individual or marketer—is still to reach the point where your fans/readers/subscribers become your evangelists. Seth Godin doesn’t have to share his own posts, nor do Kevin Nalts or Chris Crocker need to share their own videos. But they didn’t start out that way! Don’t be afraid to be your biggest fan, and don’t feel like you need to hide behind a secret second account to share your content. Use these tools to get yourself started and you will be on your way.

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Written by Matt Peters
Matt is the Co-Founder and CEO of Pandemic Labs, and enjoys thinking about, writing about, and talking about social media marketing whenever someone will let him.