Even if the comment "show me your friends and I'll tell you who you are" is not true in life, in social business, prospective clients and customers have little else to go on. As a social media consultant, the risk involved in growing social media or other online communities through wide-net tactics such as "follow me and I'll follow you too" makes me more than a bit nervous. I'm not alone in this - Christine Erickson, Mashable (Erickson, 2012), in discussing Twitter, also advised on the potential risks of following everyone back.
In industries that serve a broad customer base - the arts, airlines, sports - the risk could simply be a largely unresponsive community, despite the appearance of exponential growth. In more targeted industries - non-profits, specialty foods, publishing, environmental conservation - this tactic can do far more harm.
First, and the most important factor, is how this affects your credibility. If your industry thrives on ethics and the right associations, this tactic could definitely get you ignored, or worse. Vegan organizations unintentionally following those promoting animal testing could definitely hurt their credibility.
You are almost always just one of many options that your prospects can choose from. A big following helps, but in the long-term, it will not be more valuable than a relevant one. Brand is not based on quantity, but quality. On social media, if your brand is unclear, followers become inactive or disappear.
With limited control of what followers say on social media, attracting the right community mitigates associated risks. While some say "all press is good press", few talk about the cost of bad press - financial and otherwise. A non-profit, for example, could lose funding for Liking/Following the wrong group.
The potential impact that building the wrong network (or community) could have on your business is not restricted to social media. Nike (Guthrie, 2012) and Starbucks (Business Wire via The Motley Fool, 2013) were among the few corporate enterprises that succeeded in turning their reputations around by changing their supply chains - in essence, their associations. Not everyone would be so fortunate.
We don't need to learn the same lessons every time we change media.
Community growth should be aligned with strategic goals. Who are the members of your community going to be? Why? Be careful about the tactics you employ. Whether it's on the basis of your industry, values or clientele needs, when building your online community, be mindful of what that says to your real customers about you.
Successiory on social media
Guthrie, D. (2012, September 3). Building Sustainable and Ethical Supply Chains. Retrieved August 24, 2013, from Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/dougguthrie/2012/03/09/building-sustainable-and-ethical-supply-chains/
Business Wire via The Motley Fool. (2013, March 19). Starbucks Expands $70 Million Ethical Sourcing Program With New Global Agronomy Center. Retrieved August 24, 2013, from DailyFinance.com: http://www.dailyfinance.com/2013/03/19/starbucks-expands-70-million-ethical-sourcing-prog/
Erickson, C. (2012, March 6). Should Small Businesses Follow Everyone Back on Twitter? Retrieved August 24, 2013, from OpenForum.com: http://www.openforum.com/articles/should-small-businesses-follow-everyone-back-on-twitter/