Five ways to avoid social media pitfalls with good driving sense

I have a lot of pet peeves when it comes to driving and I'm betting all of you do as well. When I started this blog, I used the analogy of an acceleration lane and the planning and foresight that a driver should use to merge safely into oncoming traffic. The same situation can be applied to use of social media. Getting the lay of the land and watching to see what others are doing around you is essential. Sometimes you see valuable strategies that can be used in your own efforts. Other times you see things happening that you swear you'd never do.

1) Shortcuts and detours don't necessarily mean a short trip.
It's Monday morning, it's raining and no one remembers how to drive in the rain. Traffic has slowed to a crawl and you're definitely going to be late. So, you take your trusty back roads. Except, you aren't the only one taking a detour. How many times have you tried a shortcut only to realize that it's made your trip even longer?

Some social media users take shortcuts all the time. They buy followers for Twitter. They run contests that require users to "like" their Facebook page. They max out their circles on Google+ hoping those they circle will circle them back. These shortcuts give an appearance of greater reach, but quality over quantity should be the guiding principle in using social media. You want followers who have a genuine interest in your product or services, not a placeholder who doesn't care.

2) Noise annoys and pollutes.
In my hometown in Florida, there is a large (roughly 60,000) population of college students, many of whom like the boom. You can't drive anywhere without being shaken from head to toe by the bass speakers in someone's car and it's usually several. If I wanted to listen to my radio, it was usually impossible until I got out of hearing range of these cars - it was annoying.

Have you ever followed someone on a social network who was "noisy"? I have unfollowed dozens of people who clogged my stream with an overwhelming volume of content. Sure, there are ways to filter their content out. I've muted users, hidden them, and eventually if they bother me enough, I just cut them off. I don't believe in reciprocity, because I want my stream to add value to me. Do you think about the value you're adding to your users when you post on social channels?

3) Be respectful of all traffic.
I've been cut off by drivers so many times in such a way that the driver gains a whopping second or two on me. I have come to the conclusion that those drivers who are in such a hurry feel that their time is more valuable than mine. What they have to do is more important than being safe. These are often the same people who make it dangerous for smaller traffic to share the roads - bicycles, motorcycles, etc.

In social media, we don't have a physical danger element to our use, but there are many users who tend to be elitist. They speak to those who have a certain minimum. Maybe it's follower count. Maybe it's Klout score. Those numbers do not matter. Why? Because we all started with zero and those of us who've been around for a while all like to think we're adding value. Why not spend a little time responding to new people too?

4) Clear communication is crucial.
I was merging onto the highway recently when a woman behind me was furiously waving me into her lane. Not because she was angry, but because she wanted it to be obvious that it was OK for me to jump in. Traffic was heavy and her waving amused me as much as I appreciated it.

The conversation in social media channels can be fast and furious and so easily misconstrued. Careful wording, careful timing and doing your research will all help prevent misunderstandings.

5) Accidents happen; take responsibility.
I've had four fender benders in my life and I was at fault in half of them. I had to climb out of my car and walk up to the other person and tell them how sorry I was. One instance I was a young driver in circumstances that even an experienced driver would have a difficult time avoiding the accident. In the other, I was a young driver who just did something stupid. I didn't make excuses or try to fob off responsibility.

Anyone who's worked in communications for very long can probably name off a string of infamous public relations nightmares. In most of those examples, the criticism often focuses on the response to the backlash. Was it appropriate? Was it timely? Did they make amends? All of these are important to customers. Just ask any company who's taken a hit to their bottom line after poorly handling such incidents.

The end of the year is a time many of us use to reflect on what we've been doing and think ahead to what will come. If your journey on the road of social media has been bumpy, think about changes that can be made to smooth the road ahead into 2012.  Focus on quality, reducing the noise, engaging without parameters, communicating clearly and taking responsiblity and you'll have a great start to the New Year.

I hope everyone out there has a fantastic holiday - whatever you're celebrating!