Commercializing social media: Yes or no?

When is it OK to use largely personal social media, such as Flickr, for commercial PR purposes? As companies innovate, they must become further aware of their audience.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
3 min read

Last week, CNET News' Stephen Shankland related the story of how the Scion public-relations team added me as a contact in Flickr. As he noted, "I thought it might be a marketing move, given that the Detroit auto show was under way, and indeed, a little digging showed that to be the case."

I likewise contacted the Flickr user, and here's the reply that I received (via the Yahoo.com address in their profile):

We saw you were on Flickr and, as a technology/online aficionado, we thought you might be interested in the new car. The new release series vehicle is loaded with tech gear and, yes, is debuting at the Detroit auto show this week.  Since your blog covers mostly tech but does the occasional stray (nice Lobster recipe!) we thought you'd be interested.

I'm not entirely clear through what avenue I came to their attention. The referenced blog in her reply would seem to be my personal blog and there is, indeed, a link to my Flickr account there.

News.com Poll

Commercializing social media
In football terms, what do you think of Scion PR's Flickr play?

Touchdown. Smart play, well executed.
Reverse. OK, but have to run judiciously.
5-yard penalty. Nothing flagrant, but a no-no.
Personal foul. Flagrant misuse of social media.

View results

This seems a good opportunity to ponder the appropriate uses of social media for commercial purposes.

This case certainly doesn't strike me as any great suborning of the system, a la the recent attempt by a Belkin employee to insert flattering reviews into Amazon.com via Amazon's own Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing service. Two very different things.

This is, if anything, pushing the boundaries of an ill-defined boundary between public and private, between commercial and noncommercial. And the reality is, that boundary never will get better defined, unless people push it from time to time.

In this case, I certainly had the option not to accept the contact request. It was an opportunity to see first-hand an attempt to innovate in public relations using social media. And I do have a reasonably high-profile online presence that, at the least, blurs the line between my public and private personas.

That said, I'm inclined to put this in the "OK this time, but don't make a practice of it" bucket. In part, it's a matter of numbers; I didn't mind this one contact, but I'd hate to be deluged with Flickr contact requests from all manner of people with nonobvious commercial purposes.

The PR agency wasn't really hiding its identity, but it wasn't advertising it, either. For example, they used a Yahoo.com e-mail address. We're also not talking about a highly focused PR contact by way of Flickr; I may write about technology, but I'm not sure that I've ever written about cars specifically.

Using Flickr in this way also seems to go a step too far into the personal space. My public and personal personas may well be blurred together, but my Flickr account is pretty obviously not related to the technology writing I do. It feels a little bit like someone calling my home number on a business matter.

Again, I don't fault Scion's PR team for trying something new and different. In fact, I applaud it. But as companies innovate with social media, they also have to develop an exquisitely fine ear for that which is ringing true to their audience and that which strikes a false chord.

What do you think?