April 19, 2009

Targeted Spam or Business Networking?

Posted in business networking at 10:38 pm by degyes


I posted a Facebook status and Twitter tweet that resulted in my being “followed” on Twitter by someone trying to sell something. This experience got me thinking about Twitter’s yet unproven potential as a possible intersection between the worlds of social networking and targeted advertising. Also, I was prompted to ask myself where the domain of spam stops and that of legitimate business begins.


This past Friday morning I discovered a leak in our half bathroom. Upon closer inspection, whereas the drip was far less than a torrent, it was more than just dampness. So I spent a few moments confronting the emerging reality that my morning’s plans (remember, Friday is my “free” day, as Israel’s workweek runs from Sunday through Thursday) have just changed. At this point I’m focused on how we can avoid a large plumbing bill, meaning I’d have to bring the bathroom back online DIY fashion. Consider that we sank no small amount of cash into fixing the oven last week, an appliance that actually started falling apart before the warranty expired. So I poke around identifying the source of the leak, and conclude that I’ll need to purchase materials, as I start rehearsing in my mind what I’ll need to describe to the folks at the hardware store (my Hebrew vocabulary thins out a bit in the area of home repair).

My trip to the hardware store yields a positive experience (though that’s not the point of this article). Electro-Slil on Pierre Koenig street is open for business bright and early, and Bahder in the plumbing supply department hears me out as I describe my problem, is reasonably patient as I go over it again just to make sure there’s no miscommunication, and actually takes the trouble to draw a diagram to make sure we’ve got it straight before I put down any cash. I’m thinking that this must be one of the multitude of daily examples of Moslem-Jewish coexistence that go unnoticed behind the media’s account of the “Arab-Israeli conflict,” but again, I digress.

Anyway, I head home with my newly purchased supplies (only NIS 25, about $6). Then, after a couple of hours of patch-up work, testing, and fine-tuning (which included an additional trip to the hardware store to buy an NIS 3.00 item I’d neglected to pick up the first time around), the leak is sealed up near perfectly. If the patch-up job can stave off a major repair expense for a couple of years, then my time and energy were well spent.

How Does this Relate to Social Media?

Early that same afternoon, using recently-installed TweetDeck, I updated both my Twitter and Facebook statuses to reflect the morning’s events. Later, before I shut down the PC prior to my pre-Shabbat jog, I checked FB and discovered that a friend had left a comment on my plumbing-related post. I responded, offering a few additional details. I didn’t think much of it. Thread closed, right?

The next day, shortly after Shabbat ends, I open my Google dashboard and notice a newly arrived email indicating that Charles the Plumber is following me on Twitter. I don’t know Charles the Plumber. What’s more, since the plumbing problem was now long behind us (no pun intended), it took me a moment to make the connection with the previous day’s posts. So I click the Twitter link to find out more. The link leads me to Charles’ updates, which yield yet more information. Apparently, Charles has a legitimate plumbing and heating business somewhere in east-central New Jersey. Charles is trying to maximize social media as a tool for drumming up business. He does this it seems by following Twitter tweets and interactions on FB relating to his business area. He then “follows” those folks who post items containing certain phrases or keywords, offering his free advice in the hope that when you need to call in a pro, you’ll call him.

Just to be clear, the point here is not to gripe about having been social media “spammed.” I’m not mad at Charles, nor am I upset by his attempt to “follow” me (for what its worth, after a quick look at Charles’ tweets, I blocked him). If anything, my reaction was at most mild irritation and bemused annoyance. What piqued my interest here is really two issues. One, do Twitter and Facebook constitute a legitimate use of social networks as a tool for generating unsolicited promotional messages? Or, conversely, does this simply represent another cynical way of exploiting social networks, relegating what ought to be good and fun to little more than a virtual conduit for junk mail? Secondly, does Charles’ use of Twitter suggest a possible scenario for how Twitter—or any form of “micro-blogging”— could have a potential future as a tool by which businesses seek customers and target ads to those potential clients?

Much noise has been made of late by Twitter’s proponents and critics alike. The cheerleading section raves about what a wonderful technology Twitter offers (I’m even subscribed to a blog by a young woman who’s got her heart set on getting hired by Twitter); the critics claim that innovative technology or not, Twitter has yet to present a business model that’s likely to lead to any kind of actual revenue stream. A reliable flow of income would be essential for the long-term survival of any business, at least according to the old school, right? Some even allege that the Twitter phenomenon is a fad that will die out once this (perhaps old-fashioned but very real) fiscal fact sets in. These folks can even point to a CNN “Quick Vote” taking place as I write this piece. This CNN poll indicates that among the 350,000 who’ve so far responded, only 7% use Twitter. Of the remaining 93%, thirty percent hadn’t heard of it, further indicating —according to my own perhaps somewhat simplified analysis—that the 63% who are aware of Twitter and haven’t bothered to sign up are not convinced of the value it could add to their lives, online or otherwise.

So Why This Article?

The purpose of this blog piece is to stimulate thought and discussion. For starters, I’m sure folks are curious to gain some insight into the technologies used in identifying and aggregating Facebook statuses and Twitter tweets on a specific topic or knowledge area, prompting a Twitterer to begin following those postings and tweets. (I’m assuming the lurkers are not tracking this stuff manually.) Beyond the technology, the larger question is whether this manner of “lurking and targeting” is a legitimate business tactic, or yet another aggressive and unsolicited intrusion into our online lives. Wherever you stand on the issue, your thoughts and comments are welcome.