Should we ask employees to tweet client stories?

wall of spam

Here’s an interesting ethical question: is it OK to ask employees to share company and client news through their personal social networks?

Here’s a hypothetical example. An agency has just launched a new ad campaign and posted the TV spot on YouTube. Is it OK to send an all-hands email asking people to share the link on Twitter and Facebook?

Let’s take it a little further. Is it OK to ask them to sign into YouTube using their personal accounts, and rate the video? It seems harmless enough, doesn’t it? You’re not telling them how they should rate it, after all.

But what if you asked them to leave comments? Any normal agency or client side social media policy will tell them that they have to disclose their relationship with the makers of the video. And you wouldn’t really want a whole bunch of comments that start “Hi, I work for the agency that made this ad and I think it’s really great,” would you? What makes the two things different?

Digging for victory

OK. Another hypothetical example. The social news site Digg is a huge source of traffic for most news websites. The Telegraph, for example, gets around 75K visits a day from the service. That’s an awful lot of traffic.

The thing is, with Digg, you really want to make the front page if you want the big traffic. Around 10K stories are submitted by users to Digg every day, and only 150 or so make it to the front page. So we’d need to be smart.

Digg is less open to being gamed than it used to be, but let’s say that a smart agency could still deconstruct Digg’s algorithm sufficiently that it can use its network of staff to improve the chances of a story (or review) making it to the front page that shows their client in a positive light.

All they’d need to do (say) is send an all-hands email that mobilised your staff to digg a particular story at the right time of day. Would this be legitimate? Digg clearly thinks not, but are they the best judge?

Ballot stuffing

Let’s say a client gets nominated for a Webby or one of the other user-voted awards out there. It’s common and acceptable practice for web services to use any means at their disposal to beg for votes.

So is it OK to send an all-hands email asking your staff to register and vote? Is it OK to ask them to use their Facebook and Twitter accounts to ask their friends and followers to vote?

Here’s what I think

I think that this is an ethical minefield, but I’ve got a couple of clear points of view that are up for discussion. First off, and from a purely business perspective:

If it’s valuable then clients should pay us to do it. If it’s not valuable we shouldn’t do it.

Ignore the ethics. When was the last time you sent an email that said, “Please share this with your friends and use billing code xxx.xx when you record it on your time sheet”? Of course, it only takes a few seconds to relay a message (fewer if you simply copy and paste the message from the all-hands email to your social media presences). What the hell – it’s all just part of the team spirit, isn’t it?

But if this service is of any value at all to the client, then we’ll see the demands on our time beginning to increase. Soon we’ll find ourselves doing several a day. Larger agencies with more staff will offer a more valuable service to clients than boutique agencies (“We have a thousand trained staff with Twitter and Facebook accounts primed to promote your campaign!”)

We could even work out some kind of ratcheted scale that said that people with more Twitter followers could bill at a higher rate; or we might start looking at unduplicated reach.

This might seem fanciful, but stories like the uSocial’s offer to game Digg’s front page for around $200 tell us that the thriving black hat market for this sort of thing is getting a little greyer.

If clients value this, then they should pay us. If we give it away as a “value added” service, then are we sure that we’ve communicated this properly so that the client understands the value we added?

How can we be certain we aren’t just undermining our digital value proposition?

Now, here’s the tricky bit where I bring ethics back into it. If we’re paying our staff to relay messages to their networks on behalf of our clients, what makes this different from spam?

Employees personal networks are their personal property

I’m one of those people who believes that the boundaries are blurring between our personal, public and professional lives. My colleague Chris Nee has posted about the presentation of self in social media, expressing a lot of how I feel rather better than I could myself, although that hasn’t stopped me from covering this elsewhere — notably in a discussion about our social media policy where I said:

I think that a good PR person is someone who manages their relationships well; who can tread the fine line between doing good work for their clients without abusing or exploiting their relationships. Who recognizes the value of their personal network, and their personal brand.

Do we have a right to ask our employees to use their personal networks on behalf of our business? I think the answer is – of course we do. We pay experienced staff more partly because of the social capital that they’ve managed to accrue in their address books. When you leave your job to go to a new agency, you’ll take your contacts with you along with all the shared experience, the favours you’ve done, and the favours you owe.

So if part of the reason we’re paying them more is because of that network, then we clearly value their network.

So why on earth would we encourage our staff to spam their personal networks?

I trust my peers. I don’t trust spam monkeys

Part of the reason for the success of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter is that I can choose who I follow and who I don’t. I can restrict conversations to a bunch of people I trust and respect. Sure, I’ve got lots of Twitter followers with names like “Sophie1982″ and “EdelmanHR” but that just means that they hear my inconsequential blatherings, not that I have to hear theirs!

And I follow a lot of my colleagues’ Twitter streams. I’m pleased to say that these are — on the whole — full of meaty chunky content and devoid of spam.

But if we increase the spam content, what will happen? Here’s what (in the absence of evidence) I believe: their follow rates, retweet rates and mention rates will all begin to drop off. From your experience, what do you think?

Where does this leave us?

I’ve put a somewhat one-sided argument here. I’m sure I’m open to all sorts of rebuttals like, “surely, if the content is interesting/useful/entertaining then our staff will only be adding value to their networks?” and “but surely it’s up to them whether they want to pass it on to their friends?” I’ll wait for these to roll in before I start trying to address them.

But here’s what I think. I think that we’re trying to teach our colleagues to learn from managing their personal communities in order better to manage our clients’ communities. Anything that teaches them to prostitute their networks is a retrograde move.

Am I wrong?