The Social Cost of Unpaid Tweetup Teams

Mannequin Clique by quinn.anya on Flickr.comAs the founder of the Social Media Club Hawaii chapter and a very active social media consultant here in Hawaii, I am often invited to attend events and receive services for free in exchange for social media buzz – aka tweeting, facebooking, photographing, and videoing about my experiences.

Though I thoroughly enjoy myself when I am on site and do pour myself into the activities at hand, I have this persistent nag of discomfort. I’ve been letting it percolate as I gather information and sort out all of the energies that are in play – just what my “systems analyst” mind likes to do!

I am ready to open up a conversation about this practice as I think we can do better.

In case it is not obvious why brands engage social media influencers in this manner, let me summarize as I see it:

  • Brands give things away for free in exchange for buzz.
  • Brands hope to use influencers to build their own influence and market their products and services.
  • Brands save money by giving things away free as compared to hiring said influencers to work on the brand’s behalf.
  • Brands save time by having the influencers organize themselves and manage their messaging, as compared to planning a social marketing campaign.
  • Influencers get freebies and possibly a chance to build their own influence, by association.

Here in Hawaii community, is not just a buzz word, it is a really big deal. Words, deeds, and intentions travel quickly on the coconut wireless as well as on social media. It has made me more sensitive, I believe, to the pulse of the community as an ongoing aspect of what I do and how I experience the community. As a new resident of Maui, I have dropped in to many well-established communities of people – each with their own energies and hierarchies. I am literally feeling my way around and am committed to as much transparency and openness as possible.

I think I have nailed down the key reasons why I have threads of discomfort woven into my own participation as a guest tweeter or member of a volunteer social media team:

1) Those of us who get freebies are set apart from those who don’t. For some, this could actually hurt participation as friends and peers who were not invited for free, feel left out. (Have you experienced this? I would like to hear about it.) Social media constantly pushes up against high school clique issues, and as a believer in best practices, I want to make social media activities more inclusive not less. The theory has been to get the influencers on board first and the masses will follow. But what if some of the influencers are left out and choose to hide the event info from their friends and fans? What if they develop a negative feeling toward the brand that persists after any individual event? What if the masses begin to doubt credibility because of the pay-to-play underlying mechanism? What if the brand loses credibility only by featuring cheerleaders and not objective reviewers?
Bottom Line: To me, there is risk for the brand and the influencer to actually lose positive sentiment/respect in the community – at least here in close-knit Hawaii. By inadvertently creating cliques, we are anti-community building.

2) Those of us who accept the freebies generally get less value than the brand, on a dollar-to-dollar basis. Looking at this strictly as business, we are providing our services for below market value in most cases based on the dollar cost of the service/product being given. This reminds me of that old saying, “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?” Now if this is for a nonprofit cause, we have a different basis. So let’s take that off the table. But regarding for-profit businesses, they are paying very little for professional social media services. Consider a free meal or ticket or service in exchange for many hours of social buzz. They are also missing out on the best quality those influencers could provide them. If the brand makes judgments about the efficacy of social media based on these relatively random, unstructured free services, that would be a mistake.
Bottom Line: To me, when we work for free, we social media professionals devalue ourselves and do not help brands understand the full value of social media – regardless of the outcome of any given event – if for no other reason they are not getting our best work. OTOH, do you think working for freebies is a viable way for a newbie social media practitioner to build their expertise and business practice? Maybe I am jaded, having been at this for so long, and knowing with certainty the knowledge and value I can bring to a brand.

3) The third challenge is the FTC guidelines for disclosure. Bloggers in particular are held to a very high standard. (Tweeters not as much yet but the intent still applies.) I try to append my tweets at least a few times in the conversation with things like “gift” so readers know I am being comped. But I admit I do a lousy job of it and have never been given instruction by a brand to disclose. In a community, though, people have a way of finding out. When it is not out in the clear, I think there is enhanced risk of creating ill will as well as running afoul of the law.
Bottom Line: FTC rules require disclosure of freebies. We could all use clearer guidelines and easier practices to accomplish this.

So how do we improve on this? I have a few ideas and I am quite certain you readers can help add to this conversation. I want to hear from influencers and brands and community members about how we can collaborate in ways not that are not just win-win (you and me) but win-win-win (you, me, and the community aka marketplace).

Here are some ideas to get us started. I expect to modify them as I get more input from you. It requires an upgrade in your brand’s use of social media, but I think our time has come for that. Free tweetups were a great way to learn and connect but I think they have out-lived their usefulness to the brand, to the influencer, and to the consumer.

  • Stop giving away freebies and instead create standard business transactions.
  • Have a business goal for each event and hire influencers accordingly.
  • Make it an open process, so you expand your pool of support rather than restrict it.
  • Have at least a part-time social media consultant or staffer for your brand. There is too much to figure out on your own or in a scatter shot manner.

Here is how this could work for each event or launch:

  • Have your social media staffer/consultant define the scope of work, outline the goals and metrics, determine criteria needed to meet said goals, and agree on a working budget. It does not have to be big! Keep in mind, the adage “you get what you pay for” still applies with social media.
  • Put out an open call for social media assistance and include your performance criteria. Your goals will determine the relative balance of skills you want: photos, tweets, video, blogs, local/mainland followers, peeps/business users, etc.
  • Provide specific and measurable assignments to your team and equip them with as much background info as possible so they can do a great job for you.
  • Measure and report on your measurements.
  • Rotate your hiring to give as many people a chance to collaborate as possible – building your de facto network of influencers as well as good will.

Since this represents a significant change for how we have been doing things here in Hawaii, I would really like to host a chat IRL to talk about these ideas and how we might go about implementing them. If you want to join in, please let me know! Leave a comment here or email me: I will get it organized and post details here, and of course also across the social web. My goals are to strengthen our community (this includes personal relationships, as well as both business and consumers), to strengthen support for social media best practices, and to support the social media professionals in our midst.

Photo Credit: Mannequin Clique by quinn.anya on Flickr.

With love and Aloha,