The last thing any of us needs is more useless e-mail. If you’re like me, you spend the first few minutes of your day riffling through your inbox to filter out the detritus. You sort quickly: internal business, clients, friends, mailing lists. Mixed in there, as always, are the emails from marketers touting some new service, some revolutionary project, or some website I “might be interested in”. Let’s be honest: It’s not as if I think people shouldn’t be sending these introductions. On the contrary, networking with other bloggers and seeing if they’re interested in what you do is part of any social marketing plan. But you need to do your research before you reach out, and you need to have some genuine interest in the blogs and bloggers you contact. A canned, formulaic e-mail that you send to me and hundreds of other people is going right in our collective garbage cans.

Take this e-mail we received as an example of how not to reach out to a blogger or business online (please note that I altered the company URL for confidentiality):

Dear webmaster, We want to inform you that recently we have launched a website called www.failrail.com. FailRail.com is a website that allows visitors to view, create and compare timelines. These timelines can be illustrated with pictures, text, YouTube movies and MP3. On our website, you will find timelines about music, movies, history, politics, art et cetera. The website is very educational, so our site is very popular among teachers and students.We noticed that your blog is focused on internet. We would be grateful if you could post an article about Failrail.com on your blog.

Photo Credit Rick MoffittThis company could be interesting, and their service could be fantastic. I’ll still never write about them because of their impersonal social marketing. They turned me off with “Dear Webmaster” (I’d much rather get a simple, human-style “Hey there” or “Hello”) and they lost all hope with “We noticed that your blog is focused on internet.” Hack work like this shows only 2 things: you’re not taking your product seriously, and you’re not taking your audience seriously. The PR component of a good social marketing plan has to begin with your genuine interest. Whether you’re a blogger looking to network or a business looking to get some buzz, put all that business about traffic and clicks aside for a moment and invest yourself in the bloggers and sites that you’d like to network with. If you can’t find anything that interests you or that you’d like to comment on, save yourself and the blogger time and move on to someone else.

The dangers of spamming bloggers with canned e-mails are extreme. The best-case scenario? Your e-mail will get ignored and your web site or company will go on that blogger’s mental blacklist. You may forget—indeed, you never really cared to begin with—but the blogger will not forget. The worst-case scenario, of course, is that your careless e-mail will appear in a post like this, exposing your misstep to a fairly large audience. (We were nice enough to change the name of the company, but not all bloggers are as kind.) Regardless of the reaction you get, your social marketing plan isn’t going to be effective if you’re alienating nearly 9 out of 10 people you contact.

For the digital PR component of every social marketing plan I work on, I probably spend about 75% of my time doing research. I would much rather send out 5 e-mails to interesting writers who I would read even if I wasn’t in the business of doing digital PR than send out 50 or 100 e-mails to whoever happens to be at the top of the Blogged.com or Technorati search results. I’m interested in bloggers that write innovative, engaging content. Those writers, those few, are the people I want to help me generate buzz.

Further, when I do write to a blogger for the first time, I almost never “pitch” them. I talk to them about the articles that I like or tell them why I enjoy the blog overall. Quite often I’ll say how I ended up reading the blog because I’m always interested in how people find the blogs I write for, and I tend to think other bloggers feel the same way. My goal, simply, is to get a conversation going and see if there’s a potential fit. One of the biggest mistakes people and companies who are new to social marketing make is viewing the first contact as a selling opportunity. This isn’t traditional business, and this isn’t traditional selling. Even those who blog for a living are still doing it primarily to share their voice and their ideas; helping you share your ideas or make money isn’t their priority.

Then again, most of the digital PR e-mails we receive reveal that most people aren’t even ready to think about the sell/non-sell question. They’re still struggling with the fundamental element I talked about earlier: Actually reading and being genuinely interested in the bloggers they decide to contact. In this e-mail pitch we received, the writer assumes that we’re going to be just overcome with enthusiasm for her company’s SEO quiz:

Dear Search Blogger, I wanted to let you know about a really cool contest we launched earlier this month at www.nondescriptlink.com. The Contest will identify the Biggest Search Geek in the SEM industry. Please take a look and test your SEM smarts! So far over 800 people have taken the test, and the top score is only a 71.25%, so the test is really quite difficult. See if you can beat the current Search Geek.Try the test today: www.nondescriptlink.com, or post about it on your blog!

Like the first e-mail, this one commits the mistake of openly asking me to write about their contest. There’s no need to ask. I know why you’re writing. Spend that valuable space getting me more intrigued, and we can talk about how interested I am in posting an article about it later on. Or use that space to make your case that my readers would like to hear about your contest. This e-mail also commits an even larger error: the salutation tells me the writer has never even riffled through the post titles on PandemicBlog. “Dear Search Blogger”? As much as I dislike “Dear Webmaster,” I’d rather be addressed with a vanilla catch-all term than with something I am fundamentally not. “Dear Webmaster” is like meeting your friend’s dog Rusty for the first time and saying “Hello Animal.” “Dear Search Blogger” is like saying “Hello Anteater.”

If I’m seem overly vitriolic about this, it’s because the etiquette of digital PR—indeed, of social marketing in general—isn’t difficult to understand, provided you can separate yourself from the formality and hard-sell habits of traditional business. Much of it is common sense. Do like the bloggers you choose to contact. Spend most of your digital PR time with reading and research. Don’t go in with a selling attitude, but instead think of it as one student talking to another, one thinker talking to another, and one writer talking to another. Never send an e-mail to a blog if you can’t give an impromptu summary of what it’s about and why it’s interesting. And, above all else, don’t confuse dogs and anteaters. This is, after all, social marketing. It behooves you to at least get names right.

Written by Clint Fralick