500 Facebook friends won’t help you fix your flat tire

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BALTIMORE, MD — It’s a hypothetical scenario, of course, that you’d find yourself standing by the side of the highway frantically updating your Facebook status to see if your friends happen to be driving down the same highway and will stop to help you. Wouldn’t it give you a heart attack if one of your friends swerved onto the shoulder and jumped out of their car with a tire iron?

Businesses, however, seem to take this sort of approach every day when marketing themselves on social media. “Super sale on slacks if you order online before 5 p.m.” will blast across Twitter at 3:30 p.m. “Tweetup tonight at 7:40 at Starbucks on Main” will show up in a company’s status bar.

What are they doing?

Brand-building and relationship-building are the key words to keep in mind in social media marketing, not just driving to a direct sale, OK? We had the same exact issue with Web marketing when banner advertising first came on the scene, where every ad online looked like something clipped from the Sunday coupon flier. Just settle down. Your sales will come, but not in the next 10 minutes. Not even Twitter works that fast.

‘Everyone has their say here’

Social media takes months of clever writing and pointed observations before you can sneak a sales pitch in there. And even then, subtlety is the key.

Bob Nanna of Threadless.com, one of the top T-Shirt brands online, says in an interview on YouTube that the key to a successful brand in social media is to “listen to customers and participants in the brand because their opinions and thoughts are critical to our success. Everyone has their say here.”

They then play with their loyal followers. For example, at random Threadless.com picks a Facebook fan and gives them the chance to spin a prize wheel. The fan then receives a token prize from the company in the mail.

Their company website also includes social voting systems to keep visitors engaged in a social way within their own site, creating a seamless transition from Facebook to Threadless.com.

And then, just for gratuitous fun, they post fun, artsy videos on YouTube that are optimized to display when users query the name of the company founders or the company brand itself. Nice work, guys.

Be normal and super-cool

Most interestingly, Threadless exudes a huge ego but in a “no fancy clothes/no makeup” kind of way. The old Procter & Gamble model of aspiration and super-gorgeous models as product spokespersons is the antithesis of what these folks are up to. Threadless execs and employees intend to look exactly like their consumers, but with just a touch of dark sarcasm to prove that even normal-looking people can be super-cool.

But even the Threadless founders know that if they get a flat tire highway, they’d better call their Dad.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a Web consulting firm in Baltimore. Her e-mail address is marci@mdvinteractive.com.