It might be every appalled teenager's refrain, but in this modern age of social media, "too much information" is a valid concern.
We all have that Facebook friend who's guilty of oversharing. We've all found ourselves "unfollowing" a Twitter user who seems convinced the world awaits news of his next meal with bated breath.
From a marketing perspective, opening up on social media can be precarious, because it bears the responsibility of arbitrating content. Social media is, by definition, social: a "pleasant companionship with friends and associates," according to Merriam-Webster. It's also a realm built on give-and-take.
To maintain an online relationship, even one involving a consumer and a business (whether it be a consumer brand, an ad agency, or a B2B service company), executives have to strike a delicate balance between authenticity and excess. It isn't easy to do.
Finding your social niche
Last year, CEO.com and executive management platform Domo released a report on Fortune 500 CEOs and social media. The study found that 70 percent of CEOs had no presence on social networks. One reason for their reluctance was that "mistakes are magnified"—but so, too, are results. A survey by research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey showed that 50 percent of consumers are more likely to make a purchase from a company after having followed the company on Twitter.
Years ago, when Twitter was really gaining traction, there was one person marketers pointed to when considering how best to represent their business on the site. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh had it figured out: In 2008, he was the 42nd-most-followed Twitter user from a pool of about 6 million users. He wasn't using the platform to generate sales, he said, but because it was "a great way for employees and customers to see that we are real people." Hsieh has since moved on to Instagram, telling The Wall Street Journal that Twitter "has lost its intimate, chatty feel."
It's a case of each executive finding the platform that makes the best fit. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has gained a quarter-million Twitter followers by tweeting about corporate news and hires, her television viewing habits, and the cafeteria at Yahoo's headquarters.
Although he stepped down this month, long-time Stonyfield president and CEO Gary Hirshberg remains an active contributor to the organic yogurt company's blog. (He's still a company chairman.)
Such activities make executives and their businesses appear accessible. Their posts afford customers and employees a glimpse into the corporate mindset. That can bolster sales, word-of-mouth referrals, and even company morale.
When Pinterest recently launched its "Secret Boards"—pinboards that can be kept private—the site's co-founder shared his excitement with members through a personal anecdote: "I had two thoughts driving home from the hospital with my wife, Divya," the email read. "The first was, 'I can't believe I'm a Dad.' The second was, 'I hope I can get our new baby, Max, out of that new car seat when we get home.'"
The purpose of the message, sent to Pinterest users via email, was presumably twofold: to introduce the new site feature and to highlight some of its uses. Simply signed "Ben & the Pinterest Team," the email had the look and tone of a personal letter.
Although it shared a private moment from his family life, it didn't come off as distasteful or contrived; on the contrary, this was a heartfelt story that served to humanize Pinterest while giving users deeper insight into its functionality. Suddenly, Ben Silbermann wasn't a stodgy CEO locked away in an ivory tower, but a regular Pinterest user with insights to share and an interesting story to tell. It was just the right amount of candor, put to business use.
So, how can a business executive gauge how much information is too much? Avoid these "fatal five" topics at all costs. Once affixed, the "TMI" label is very hard to shed.
1. Company earnings
Many a chief financial officer has suffered for posting insider information online. What happens in a board meeting should always stay there. Always.
2. Business secrets
This includes everything from corporate strategy to client campaigns, information that might benefit competitors, exclusive brand news, and office gossip. (In one instance, an extra on a popular television show was fired after tweeting a spoiler about an upcoming episode.) If it isn't fit for the world to see, it isn't fit for social media.
3. Contentious opinions
Think twice before you comment on controversial topics and current events. In most cases, a rant is better internalized than released to the social Web.
American publisher William Feather once said, "An uncontrolled sense of humor is often costly in business." Nowhere is this truer than online. Your sense of humor reflects on your business; consumers are apt to associate it with your brand.
5. Intimate imagery
Posting about the birth of a child is one thing. Sharing pictures from the delivery room is quite another. Be cognizant not just of your family's privacy, but of your online privacy, too. Avoid sharing anything (children's names, maiden names, family birth dates, local haunts) that could be used as a threat against you or to hack into your personal or business life.
As intimate as social media can sometimes feel, and as beneficial as it can be to a business, there's a limit to how much you should include your followers in your world. It's all about boundaries: Establish them, and you'll never be at risk of sharing too much.
Brad Brief is director of social marketing at Enlighten. A version of this article first appeared on iMediaConnection.com.