Communicating with Your Connections – Spam or Networking?

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731963_fragile_-_handle_with_care.jpgHere’s the question — is it ethical to add your LinkedIn connections to your newsletter list, or at the very least, a list of people you routinely contact? Where are the boundaries?

On the one hand, adding people to a “mailing list” without their express consent is spamming. On the other hand, LinkedIn is supposed to be a networking site. Isn’t one of the basic requirements of networking to communicate with the people in your network? Otherwise, aren’t they just a database entry? How are you supposed to keep in touch with even a few hundred people, much less a few thousand (and no, not only open linkers have that many connections).

It’s not a simple problem. Let’s explore it in more detail…

A recent discussion on LinkedInnovators looked at this issue, starting with Steve Delaney proclamation:

If you are a spam vigilante…or in any way opposed to networking via email or inmail, then please remove your connection to my network.

I have to assume that people who connect with me want to communicate.

Steve has a valid point. LinkedIn is meant to be a tool for strengthening and leveraging relationships. In a virtual world, communication — largely through e-mail — is the basis on which relationships are built. How can you possible be willing to send referrals to and through people if you aren’t even willing to take the time to get to know them by actually communicating with them? Certainly it’s reasonable to expect your connections to receive your communications, right?

But where is the boundary? Kai Roer responded:

IMO, when I accept or invite a connecting, there is nothing in that acceptance that says it is ok for the connection to send me a weekly newsletter. Some people seems to be using LinkedIn as a newsletter subscription service – and I do not approve of that kind of behavior.

Interestingly, despite common perception to the contrary, CAN-SPAM (the U.S. laws governing unsolicited commercial e-mail ) does not prohibit this practice in any way, shape or form. Look at the definitions regarding a commercial electronic mail message (Sec. 3 (2)):

(A) IN GENERAL- The term ‘commercial electronic mail message’ means any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service (including content on an Internet website operated for a commercial purpose).

(B) TRANSACTIONAL OR RELATIONSHIP MESSAGES- The term ‘commercial electronic mail message’ does not include a transactional or relationship message.

(D) REFERENCE TO COMPANY OR WEBSITE- The inclusion of a reference to a commercial entity or a link to the website of a commercial entity in an electronic mail message does not, by itself, cause such message to be treated as a commercial electronic mail message for purposes of this Act if the contents or circumstances of the message indicate a primary purpose other than commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service.

Now, let’s not go jumping to conclusions about what a “relationship message” is… they do go on to define it in great detail. I won’t reprint the whole thing here, but let’s suffice it to say that in the context of CAN-SPAM, it does not include “just keeping in touch”.

That said, is “just keeping in touch” considered “commercial”, i.e., “the primary purpose…is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service”? It’s a gray area to which there’s no easy answer (and no court precedent).

It’s clear, though, that regardless of the legality, it does cross some people’s ethical boundaries. Jarrod Broussard wrote:

I would disconnect to a user who took the liberty to subscribe me any newsletters without my explicit permission… Newsletter subscriptions…should be explicitly “Opt In” as opposed to a condition of connecting to an individual that the connectee has to forcibly undo.

Generally I agree with Jarrod, but “should” in this case is an ethical issue, not a legal one.

Jason Alba, though, who has certainly been highly ethical in all my experience with him, is one of those who practices this, adding people from his LinkedIn connections to his monthly newsletter list, which he produces using Constant Contact. He explains his rationale:

If you request a connection, I feel like I have the right to send you an update about me and my business each month…hopefully people that have the opinion that this is wrong will not go asking for loose connections and expect nothing in return… don’t you think?

Jason’s point about loose connections and reciprocity is well-made. And aren’t you supposed to keep in regular contact with the people in your network? Isn’t that just good networking?

If I write one person an e-mail to tell them what’s going on in my life and in my business, that’s certainly not spam. If I copy/paste and send the same message to another person, certainly it’s still not spam, right? How many people do I have to send it to before it’s “spam”, if each individual message isn’t spam? And does it matter if I do a mail merge instead of a copy/paste? That’s just simple operational efficiency – you can’t fault anyone for that, right?

Now here’s Jason’s dilemma:

  • On the one hand, he is trying to manage it conscientiously by using Constant Contact. This allows people to easily opt out and not get accidentally added back in somehow in the future.
  • On the other hand, because he is using Constant Contact, it is now very definitely a “mailing list”, and not simply “personal contact” to a lot of people.

My suggestion to Jason and anyone else wanting to add people to a newsletter is this: instead of auto-subscribing them to your newsletter, send those new connections an e-mail something like this:

Hi ___,

I’m glad to have added you to my LinkedIn network this month, and I look forward to continuing to grow our relationship and be of service by referring appropriate opportunities and people to each other.

I’m a firm believer that communication is the basis for building relationships. If I don’t know what’s going on in your life and business and you don’t know what’s going on in mine, it’s very difficult for us to be of service to each other as I would like.

As I’m sure you understand, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with several hundred or several thousand contacts on a regular basis if you do it all via one-to-one personalized e-mail. To reduce the time it takes me to keep in touch, I’ve set up a mailing list for people who are willing to keep up with what I’m doing, and I’d like to invite you to join it at http://_______.

I send it monthly, and it’s purely informational — not constantly trying to sell you something. I also want to keep up with what you’re doing, so if you have something similar, please let me know so that I can be of better service to you by keeping up with you and your business.

Sincerely,

– J –

That’s one approach. You may get a few less subscribers, but you’ll get less opt-outs too, and I don’t think anyone can fault you for this approach.

Here’s another approach:

  1. Use the mail merge function of your contact manager and/or word processor. Depending on the number being sent, you may have to divide it into batches. Even if you really do know all of them and no one will report it as spam, you still don’t want to send several hundred messages through your mail server all at once.
  2. Don’t make it a newsletter, don’t write it like a newsletter. Write it in the conversational style you would use if you were writing it to one and only one person, vs. the “announcement” style we tend to use when writing a “newsletter”.
  3. Only send it to people you would send it to, and on a “reasonable” frequency. Personally, I think monthly is a little too frequent for a “personal” update – I’d probably suggest quarterly. I don’t do it on a regular basis — I do it when major events happen, like the publication of The Virtual Handshake.
  4. Manually review the list each time it goes out and don’t send it to anyone you’ve talked to in-depth in the past couple of weeks who’s already heard what you’re saying in the letter. When I get things like that from people, I don’t get so pissed off that I want to disconnect from them, but it is irritating to have someone you just talked to on the phone two days ago send you an obviously bulk message.
  5. If you set up your mail merge so that the messages don’t go out automatically, but get generated and sit in your outbox, you can go through and manually edit the few of them that would benefit from a little personalization.
  6. As I did in the other example above, be sure that at the end of the message, you invite them to e-mail you back or call you and let you know what’s going on in their life and their business.

Think people won’t respond to this approach? Think again. I’ve done messages like this several times, and I usually get a 30-40% response rate from people. And not once have I had anyone ask me to take them off my “list”.A little more time-consuming approach, but an effective one.

UPDATE: For some more excellent thoughts on this, see Marc Freedman’s article on sending LinkedIn updates.

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10 Comments

  1. Scott, seems like there are more fine-lines and gray areas here than I thought. People are sick of spam… the bad news is, we are not going to win the battle on spam. Ever.

    What I do, I do not consider spam. People are supposed to connect with someone that they have some kind of relationship with, I figure that I might not know someone but because of my active online networking perhaps they follow me and feel a bond. I’m cool with that, and perhaps we can get to know one another better.

    I DO NOT add anyone to my list, outside of my LinkedIn contacts, unless they give me permission to. I take out the “forward this message” function as I intend this to be a private list. I don’t want my competition seeing the newsletter as I announce future development/partnerships/progress.

    … but I totally see your (and others) points.

    I know this is not a final solution, but I just added this to my LI summary:

    ********** If you want to connect with me then I will add you to my business newsletter. I send it out once a month and it let’s you know what’s going on in my life (I spend from 10 – 14 hours a day working, so this is what’s going on. IF YOU DON’T WANT TO GET IT, DON’T CONNECT WITH ME. **********************

    It is a half-way solution. But here’s the deal. If you (not “Scott Allen,” rather the people that think this is spam) are going to be offended at getting my newsletter, where you can learn more about my business interests (isn’t LinkedIn about business networking?), then please go disconnect with me.

    As you state above, when is it spam? I think people do this all the time… at least I’m not putting everyone’s e-mail in the “to” field so they can all spam eachother…

    Jason Alba
    CEO – JibberJobber.com

  2. I was wondering what you were going to come up with! I must admit — that’s a solution I hadn’t thought of.

    While I certainly think you’ve CYA’d, I still don’t think it’s the solution I would recommend. At least if someone has an issue with it, you can say, “I did tell you that.” For me, though, the possible risk to my reputation isn’t worth having a few more newsletter subscribers.

    For one thing, if they don’t feel good about receiving it, then it’s actually generating negative social capital every time you send it. For another, if they don’t really want to be receiving it, they won’t be reading it anyway, in which case what’s the point?

    I think you’ve certainly come within the realm of “fair warning”, but my advice would still be one of the two approaches I described above. We may have to just agree to disagree on this one. 🙂

  3. Great topic to talk about. Some time ago I talked about something very similar with one of my connections.

    I think what Kai Roer mention is certainly right but we can do some exceptions. Why? Just as an example there are people that never communicate with us and only send newsletters… I guess we don’t want just to have a connection with them by a periodical newsletter.

    But maybe we can accept those “newsletter” from people that we talk to them, or people that we want to know about
    them because we can do some business with them or we can help them or be helped by them, or just because we know they don’t have time to write us and a newsletter is a kind of update for us.

    I hate newsletters but I must admit that this is the only way maybe we can know what some very busy people is doing and what’s happening in their lives.

    I hate newsletters and I must admit that I almost don’t read them when I receive one but I do read lot of “kind of newsletter” of busy people, of interesting people that, even though I know they are not writing specifically to me, I want to know what they think or say.

    I have put my two cents on my blog [http://sociallinkedin.wordpress.com/2007/07/22/communicating-with-your-connections-spam-or-networking/], so I’ll be glad if you read it.

    Fernando

  4. There is surely a difference between how to deal with this issue in terms of whether you have a relatively small (say less than 300) first level network or a very large one. I have a mailmerge program and send a message – so far *very* infrequently – to everyone. I endeavour to design it as a “relationship-maintaining” letter, letting people know what I’m up to in business, sharing some items I believe could be of interest and inviting them to let me know if there is some help they think I might be able to provide. If they did not want to receive that update and keep in touch, then frankly I would not see any point in keeping them in my “inner circle” of connections and would quietly delete them from the list. As far as I’m concerned, asking this group to do a confirmed opt-in subscription to a newsletter (which my infrequent update is not) would be inappropriate. If I wanted to invite them to subscribe to a newsletter as a separate item I would go the confirmed opt-in route. My group is hovering around 300 – people I know and trust, to use the LinkedIn phrase.

  5. This is a thoughtful piece.

    I think there is a distinction between networking for business and just networking which may end up being business.

    I started sending an e-mail once a month to my (growing) circle of people I want to stay communicating with. I consider it a monthly “Holiday Letter” that just lets people know what is going on in my life. In a global economy and with people and their time spread so thin, it is a simple, consistent way to keep in contact with people.

    Usually, four paragraphs: job, writing, ham radio, and adventures.

    Not asking for anything, just an update with a photo of some place of my family.

    I’ve considered adding my LinkedIn crowd to the e-mail, but haven’t done that yet. I think I will.

    By the way, in my not very extensive LinkedIn crowd, I only consistently hear from three people, usually in a note or call every few months. So, if you haven’t exchanged anything from someone on your LinkedIn list for a year, how willing would you be to help the other person?

    (And Jason Alba’s newsletter rocks!)

  6. Let’s go to the basics. What’s the whole idea of having groups in linkedin ? What is a group supposed to be without the links and communications among its members ? Why would I set up a special group if I cannot communicate with its members and they cannot communicate among themselves as a group ?
    What would a group with a special name give its members if it does not allow them to share views, experiences, questions and knowledge on the very same topic that was behind creating the group ?

    I would appreciate anyone explaining to me the wisdom of having these groups with crippled communications as they are today ????

    thanks

  7. @Mohammed

    LinkedIn is not, first and foremost, a communication tool — and certainly not a group communication tool. They have always positioned themselves first and foremost as a tool for leveraging existing relationships — to get business done or to make new ones.

    The groups within LinkedIn exist for pretty much two main reasons: 1) to give free members visibility to their fellow members of a group even if they aren’t connected within three degrees, and 2) to allow you to identify fellow members of the group when searching.

    Of course, once group members start using LinkedIn, reason #1 becomes somewhat irrelevant. If everyone connects to the leader(s) of the group, then everyone is within two degrees of each other. At that point, from a practical standpoint, then the impact is that your fellow group members show up between your first-degree contacts and your second degree. By being a fellow member of a group, you appear higher in the search results.

    LinkedIn Groups simply isn’t a group communication or collaboration tool. They didn’t feel the need to do that, because there are SO many other solutions already out there for that — why spend resources developing functionality that is already readily (and freely) available?

  8. Scott, thanks for an awesome discussion that covers many angles of this issue. I gave this my “exceptional” del.icio.us tag.

    Here are my two cents: I believe that, as the center of my network, I am the “host” and serve my network as a host would. Therefore, as you suggest between the lines, ethically it’s best to treat people in your network in line with their comfort levels; how will *they* feel? Loose tie people probably won’t mind, while tight tie people are another story. It’s kind of obvious, but connections have their preferences, and the more considerate we can be, the better.

    Best- Chris

  9. Is the Steve Delaney you quote at the start of the article the same Steve Delaney that works or used to work as an IT recruiter ?

    I ask because I have been getting SPAM emails from every social website known to mankind with his name on them. He took my email address from monster.com and contacted me about an IT job several years ago. I did not respond. Regardless, he kept my email address and has signed me up an many many internet sites over the years. I wrote him a few times asking him to take me off his contact list. His reponse was, “Wah wah”. This guy needs to be sued. Yet you choose to give him coverage.

    I got a new email from him today. He’s now signed me at up doggietube.com.

  10. Lee:

    First off, this post is almost three years old and the Yahoo Group where Steve posted his message is no longer around, so I don’t have any way to track it down. So in response to your question…I have no idea.

    That said, you say, “I choose to give him coverage.” Did I do so in a positive light? Did I say people should do what Steve does? Read the whole post. I think I gave a very balanced view of this topic.

    I agree that “Wah wah” is hardly an appropriate reply to someone asking to get off someone’s contact list, but accusing me of “giving coverage” to someone you perceive as a spammer when all I did was quote two sentences he posted on a discussion forum almost three years ago is going a bit overboard too.

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