Social media brand spam: a cultural issue, not technological

Companies who interrupt your organic conversions online purely to try and sell are making the same mistake they always have

Social media spam is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 90s and early 00s forum days, I moderated several music / geek boards and had to deal with marketers who tried to comment or link spam conversations.

I noticed something interesting for the ones we didn’t catch: not sometimes, they were always hung out to dry by the community. Ruthlessly.

It didn’t matter who the company was. Or if it was only mildly spammy. Even if it was from a brand the community liked there was little tolerance for spam. Social was never was meant for direct marketing.

This is still true on the web today. Digital communities are always self-policing. And while mistakes from well-meaning brands are generally forgiven, spam is named and shamed.

But I actually think the reasons behind this have nothing to do with the web or technology at all. My sense is this is simply how a cultural issue we’re all affected by plays out on the web.

Consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: imagine you’re with a friend walking through a city, having a pleasant conversation about a book you just read. All of a sudden someone blocks your path, interrupts your conversation and desperately insists you check out their new sandwich shop.

Scenario 2: you check your snail mail and in the mix for that day is a a menu for said sandwich shop.

Social web spam is, in essence, no different from scenario 1. It’s easy to think the web is somehow a “different” place from the physical world. It’s not, it is the real world: our ideas, personalities and interactions expressed through technology. And with it, our societal conditioning still applies.

Going with that, imagine what you might do after scenario 1. We’re social creatures: after you passed the interruption you would likely chat with your friend about what just happened. Your personality, mood and who you were with at the time would dictate your response. It’s not any different online as the social web is real-time.

As for scenario 2, snail-mail spam: if you’re new to the area and the menu looks interesting, you might keep it to try later. Or you might simply recycle it. But no matter what you did with the menu, you probably wouldn’t share what happened at the water cooler the next day at the office.

What’s the difference? Yes, they’re both technically interrupting you (you didn’t ask for the flyer) but one is doing so in a social context: it’s in public, when you were busy actually being social. And as social creatures we’re hard-wired to communicate about things that happen in our surroundings — perhaps even more attuned to share events in the public sphere. It’s how we survived in a pre-technology society and how we do today. So obviously no one wants their conversation interrupted, but as a consumer, you might very well want the private pitch if it’s for something actually relevant or let’s you know about a new business that you’d feel good supporting.

As a digital native I am too young to remember much, if anything about a pre-internet world, so I never felt a need to put down the above thoughts. They seemed obvious. But as I look around at what a lot of brands are (still) doing in 2021, I think it’s a point worth highlighting.

So the negative reactions to a company’s spammy communications, which we see daily, have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with a lack of understanding of culture and humanity. And as marketers it is an integral part of our job to understand that part - far more so than simply embracing new technology because it has users.