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Social media: The unpaid salesforce

Looking back and reflecting on what exactly has kept me from contributing to the wonders that is Thought Leader over the past year, it becomes glaringly obvious that it is the equivalent of Thought Leader exactly, that has kept my contribution on my “to do” list for such a lengthy time.

Call it what you will, but social media is definitely the culprit.

As a digital marketing agency, the onslaught of the overwhelming growth of social media environments has our heads spinning. Just a quick glimpse into the growth of social media platforms is enough to resonate that head spin around the continent.

So what exactly IS social media?

Wade through the definition on Wikipedia if you really want a detailed explanation. Very simply, it’s an online meeting place for consumers and influencers, with these consumers and influencers creating the conversation.

A quick look at just a few of the more popular social gathering places …

MySpace: 76 million users and $1 billion in revenue at the end of 2008.

YouTube: Just under 100 million users racking up 5.3 billion video views per month and accounting for a quarter of all US Google search queries. Any surprise Google paid $1.65 billion for YouTube? Every minute, 10 hours of video content is uploaded to YouTube.

Facebook: Boasts over 57 000 applications 200 000 active developers. Applications are used over 34 million times a day, reaching over 200 million active users.

Twitter: Grew by over 1000% between March ’08 and March ’09, being actively used by over 14 million individuals.

Added to these overwhelming numbers is every conservative corporate organisation’s nightmare — the increased time spent in these environments, which is reported to be some 124 million hours for Q1 2009 vs 87 million hours in Q1 2008.

As is evident, these peer, business acquaintance, friend and family meeting places truly are what we all seem to want and finally putting the voice into the vocal chords of us, the consumers. Delving into this space for a marketer, however, can be a proverbial nightmare.

The true winning marketer is the one that can influence the most people with its technologies. The key is to keep it simple and enticing.

Make it simple for a user to spread your brand virally, for example, embedding a YouTube clip is simply a cut and paste for it to become live in other media channels such as a blog or on Facebook.

If you don’t entice them by making them WANT to interact with your brand, you run the risk of being treated like a mop salesman knocking on someone’s front door.

Obama’s campaign sure got it right through social media. As Obama adviser Scott Goodstein said: “Some people only go to MySpace. It’s where they’re on all day. Some only go to LinkedIn. Our goal is to make sure that each supporter online, regardless of where they are, has a connection with Obama.” Obama had profiles on more than 15 social networks, including Facebook and MySpace. The count for this success: 3 million online donors, 5 million “friends” across 15 social network platforms (3 million on Facebook alone), nearly 2 000 official YouTube videos watched more than 80 million times, with 135 000 subscribers and 442 000 user-generated videos on YouTube. The list goes on.

A current example of an enticing, yet simple campaign which dares to tread in a social media environment, is one that we are currently running for our client, iBurst. Nothing too complicated — simply spot the difference between dial-up and broadband by playing a fun game akin to the “spot the difference” pictures we all enjoyed in our youth, then enter to win an enticing prize: an Acer laptop and a 24-month iBurst connection. Once you’ve done so, share it with your friends via means of a “share it” widget to popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, iGoogle, Delicious, MySpace etc by simply clicking on your preferred channel.

The campaign was seeded with a conservative budget through social ads on Facebook and a few strategically placed banners to give it a kick start. In just under 2 months since the campaign launched, close on 5 000 entries have been achieved, with 15% of all entrants requesting to be contacted by iBurst. What hasn’t cost a cent, is the viral component, with 68% of the 5 000 entrants having been referred by friends by simply clicking on one of the “share it” options.

Probably the most important thing to remember in a social media environment: people, want to connect with people … to tap into this extended, unpaid sales force … simply communicate, don’t sell.

Social media and internet technologies are changing standard business practice whether you want to admit it or not. Especially in times such as these, it’s important to embrace and take advantage of new tools. If you don’t, someone else will.


  • Andrea has been actively involved in local and international digital marketing since 1997 and has worked closely with key global companies on their digital marketing strategies. As one of the pioneering architects of the SA digital landscape, Andrea is a hugely respected talent in the digital marketing field and is the founder of digiVOX, a specialist digital marketing agency.


  1. Dave Harris Dave Harris 10 July 2009

    Yeah, yeah yeah…social media is wonderful and “doesn’t cost a cent” and is really cool to “communicate” and not “sell” BUT don’t you feel a little guilty siphoning users private information like their profile, friend lists and who knows what else, every time you entice them to click on the widget to play that “fun game” of yours?

    As a marketing type maybe you’re beyond feeling guilty and already justified in your mind this innocent invasion of an individual’s privacy. Of course some could care less about their privacy, but there are others value what little privacy they have left in this digital world and having them unwittingly surrender this to a 3rd party is unethical.

    How do you know whether the information siphoned of Facebook users now residing on iBurst servers is going to be used ethically? Do users trust iBurst like they trust Facebook with their private data?

  2. Andrea Mitchell Andrea Mitchell Post author | 12 July 2009

    Hi Dave

    Thank you for raising this topic. Although I must confess that I’m becoming a little more than tired of having to defend these types of unwarranted accusations.

    Not all “marketing types” are unethical, as we actually wish to remain in business. And so too, do our clients.

    Do yourself a favour, go and have a look at the iBurst competition, and you will clearly see that there is no private user data reaching iBurst, apart from what is willingly being provided by entrants to the competition. The widget, is merely a means to spread the competition SHOULD a person wish to. The benefit to iBurst? The competition reaches more people. The only information being asked, is the information typically required for a competition entry, and whether the entrants wish to hear more from iBurst. The more people it reaches, so the chances of people indicating that they’d like to hear from iBurst, increases. See, all within the users’ control!

    What use would their Facebook profile be to iBurst? Do you really think iBurst would waste their time trying to get people to sign up for iBurst if they have no interest?

    The competition can be found here :

    And hey, guess what? If you don’t want to share it, or post it as a news feed in your Facebook profile, you don’t have to! You don’t even have to enter!

  3. Benzol Benzol 13 July 2009

    Dave’s privacy problem seems based a little old hat thinking. In today’s world we all live in a so-called glass house.
    We all leave trails of our whereabouts when we use a mobile phone and….we do not even know who is tapping our telephone, email or -for that matter- watching our daily movements in or out our house.
    And….does it really matter if you have nothing to hide?
    The frightening bit is that any government can turn into a dictatorship and use the information to target his suspected enemies.
    The answer? As Andrea says: “And hey, guess what? If you don’t want to share it, or post it as a news feed in your Facebook profile, you don’t have to! You don’t even have to enter!”… do not have to use a mobile phone or a computer. Society has done many millennia without them.

  4. Dave Harris Dave Harris 13 July 2009

    Yes Andrea, I’m glad you acknowledge that users private information is been handed over, however, how willingly and who to exactly are the vital questions.

    1. Your widget seduces the user into playing you “fun game”, so user willingness is inaccurate. As a marketer you are an expert in seduction aren’t you?

    2. Who exactly get this information and what they ultimately do with it is out of your control. You are simply the middleman with absolutely NO say in what iBurst does with users private information that they “willingly” provide. Since you wrote the widget (Facebook application), iBurst is not legally obliged to comply with Facebook legal agreements. Right?

    Finally, when people post stuff in their profile, they understand that this is typically shared with their friends. They have a certain degree of trust with Facebook and their friends which I’m sure they would not want to extend to iBurst if they fully understood the real implications of playing your “fun game”.

  5. Andrea Mitchell Andrea Mitchell Post author | 13 July 2009

    Thank you for your comments, Dave.

    I acknowledged that only the information an entrant WILLINGLY discloses, is being handed over. All the fields you see on the competition page, is the only user information being collated.

    1) The widget only appears AFTER the user has played the game, and once again, as previously indicated, the “share” option, is exactly that… optional

    2) The widget, is not a Facebook application. It simply allows users to SHARE the competition.

    Once again, there is no further information being passed to us, or iBurst, than what is willingly disclosed by the entrant.

    Once again, we are not in the business of unethical marketing.

    If you are uncomfortable with online competitions, widgets, share options, social media … perhaps you should consider Benzol’s comment : simply don’t go online

  6. Dave Harris Dave Harris 15 July 2009

    Dear Andrea, first you say:
    “The campaign was seeded with a conservative budget through social ads on Facebook”
    Now you say “The widget, is not a Facebook application. It simply allows users to SHARE the competition.”

    OK, so if the widget is NOT a Facebook application/widget how in the world can your application figure out who the Facebook users friends are to share the app/competition if not through some social networking platform like Facebook, Twitter etc.? Web telepathy, clairvoyance or voodoo?

    I’m disappointed and saddened that you resort to Benzol’s brand of extremism that is the cause of so much of SA societies ills – “if you feel uncomfortable with it…don’t go online”. Similar to saying if you don’t want to be carjacked, don’t drive a car; if you don’t like being raped, don’t wear a short skirt….

  7. Andrea Andrea 15 July 2009

    Dear Dave

    I do believe I have given ample explanation of how this campaign works. To answer your new question … a social ad is an ad placement on Facebook. This was just one platform used to seed the campaign. Social ads are NOT a Facebook application. The widget, runs at the end of banners (run on other sites) as well as at the end of the game, which is NOT hosted on Facebook.

    If you still don’t understand the mechanics, and have concerns about Facebook privacy, that is a matter you need to take up with Facebook directly.

    When an opinion piece about the merits of social media turns to “hijacking” and “rape”… this is where the conversation ends for me.

    Thank you for your interest in our campaign

  8. Dave Harris Dave Harris 15 July 2009

    See Andrea, maybe now you can appreciate why the extremism that you and Benzol indulge in “take it or leave it” attitude, breaks down communication.

  9. Andrea Andrea 16 July 2009

    No Dave, I can simply appreciate the freedom of choice social media provides … partake in the conversation, or don’t. Much like .. enter competitions, or don’t.

    You certainly seem like an avid social media fan to me! You really should consider starting your own blog.

  10. Dave Harris Dave Harris 29 August 2009

    Dear Andrea,
    Now that Facebook have reformed their ways and taking users privacy more seriously perhaps you can too. In recent news Facebook states that:
    “Application developers will have to specify which categories of data the software needs, so users can decide accordingly. Specifically, the application will have to tell users why it wants very sensitive information, such as date of birth. Users will also have to specifically approve any access Facebook applications have to their friends’ information. Such access still would be subject to the friend’s privacy and application settings.”

    So apparently, we DO care about privacy after all. ;-)

  11. Andrea Andrea 30 August 2009

    Dear Dave

    We are of course thrilled with the news, as there is no place for unethical marketing .

    However, I still don’t believe you understand what the campaign/competition we ran was all about, nor have you paid any attention to my many responses to your continuous hammering and unqualified accusations, or you would not continue to imply that we use unethical marketing practices, or don’t take user privacy seriously. Once again, you are gravely mistaken on this point, and if you happened to do business with us, you would know this.

    Alas, I cannot make it any clearer to you, and if you continue to believe this, that is your prerogative, and as stated previously … you need to do what you need to do. But to continue to slander an individual who has made things VERY clear to you (ad nauseum), in an open forum … THAT, borders on unethical.

    From what I can see, you take issue with many articles on ThoughtLeader. Unfortunately, I have been one of your numerous targets, but I honestly and truly have explained very clearly in my opinion, and if you still don’t understand, I suggest you contact me personally so that I can draw you a picture.

    I quote :
    “Once again, there is no further information being passed to us, or iBurst, than what is willingly disclosed by the entrant”

  12. Bruce Jones Bruce Jones 3 September 2009

    It makes a person think twice.

  13. Dave Harris Dave Harris 4 September 2009

    Dear Andrea,
    When you speak on a public forum and sing the praises of “Social media: The unpaid salesforce” you should be able to defend your claims both technically and ethically.

    Thanks for the offer to “explain” things to me offline but my concerns about privacy on FB are valid and have been corroborated by recent changes in FB privacy policies.

    I think we tend to communicate on slightly different frequencies which gives rise to misunderstandings on many levels since without a firm technical understanding of how FB applications really work makes this discussion moot. Making this a personal issues between us in unwarranted since I harbor no ill-feelings towards you or your business. In fact, I wish you prosperity in your business.

  14. Andrea Andrea 5 September 2009

    Dave, your concerns regarding privacy, are very valid. The point I think you’ve missed however, is that we SHARE your concerns. The point I have been continually trying to make .. We are not “a marketing type maybe you’re beyond feeling guilty and already justified in your mind this innocent invasion of an individual’s privacy”, as you uccinctly accused.

    As for defending my claims .. the point of my article was not to discuss the technicalities or ethics around social media, but rather to higlight that marketers should remember that people in these increasingly popular environments (in fact in most mediums these days), do not want to be spoken TO, but rather WITH. WE, as consumers, will choose the brands we wish to interact with .. this is the beauty of social media environments. And this, is exactly what we had in mind with this campaign : we gave participants the freedom of choice. THEY decided if they wanted to share it with friends. Nobody was “conned” into doing anything, and nothing unethical was undertaken with regard to privacy. I think the results speak for themselves. If nobody enjoyed the campaign, they wouldn’t have shared it (NB : THEY, the “unpaid sales force”). Much like word of mouth .. same outcome.

    Yes, there are unscrupulous marketers. My point is .. we do not use these practices. And nor did the campaign we ran.

    Thank you for your well wishes.

  15. C. Brayton C. Brayton 28 May 2010

    Some social networks are like a city street with billboards. No one minds it too much. Speech is free, so go ahead and entice me into you Calvins if you can. Others — the most remarkable example being Orkut after the Great Brazilian Invasion — are like a sequel to Escape From New York where the squeegee men have totally taken over. (In Rio, the squeegee men charge R$50 to secure your parking space for you. That is to say, “I promise to protect your car from being stolen or damaged — by me.”

    There is so much boneheaded stealth marketing going on all the time everywhere it just makes you want to walk your dog elsewhere … like on some obscure bulletin board or gopher:// server that reminds you of the WELL or [email protected], if you are old enough to remember those things.

    Whether or not a marketer in these environments is technically scrupulous or not — and you people are positively Jesuitical about those scruples — does not affect the outcome: Blowback. You start treating every sexy stranger who sidles up and starts fingering their iPhone suggestively like a Jehovah’s Witness. Not that tired old spiel again. I’m from Brooklyn. How big of a sucker do you take me for?

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