Have you ever had a moment when you heard something so doomed to fail, so absolutely guaranteed to result in catastrophe, that it made you feel for a split second like you were falling?

I’m talking about that Wile E. Coyote-style, floor-falls-away feeling that hits between the moment you fully grasp the awfulness of the idea and the urgent need to start shouting and waving your hands in alarm. I had that feeling today talking to a major software industry executive.


I hope the ashen look that came across my face and the panicky sounds I barked and croaked shortly after talking to this executive communicated fully just how bad that idea was.

Keeping it Real with Canned Comments 

Here's the idea -- this company is getting a lot of good press these days -- it's doing a lot of things right, but there haven't been many comments in blogs and articles concerning the company. Proclaiming this a "missed opportunity," the executive said that the company should start commenting on all these stories.

That would take a pretty significant commitment of resources, I said, prepared to compliment the company on his enthusiasm for being part of the conversation. No, said the executive -- we'll just create some automated response we can dump into the comments section whenever we're mentioned in a story.

This is the point at which I began turning colors and emitting various alarmed sounds. Imagine someone clamping a goose in a bench vise and you might have an idea of the audio track to this scene. Sensing my distress, the executive said, "but we'll have someone tweak it a little -- like an intern."

At this point, I think someone in the room went to get a defibrillator for me. I can't be more plain about this: people can see through canned responses.  If your business goes out and comment-spams the blogosphere -- or worse yet, the on-line media -- your business might as well just cut to the chase and start selling off its desks and computers.

You will alienate everyone who you hope to impress -- customers, partners, analysts -- and identify your business as a collection of hopeless noobs who have lost the road-map to the sparkly new world of social media. And, if you rely on the lowest-paid person in your business to be the official voice of your company in the comments sections of blogs and articles, be prepared for a follow-up campaign of corrections and apologies.

Learning Opportunities

Make Conversation, Not Spam

Authenticity is critical to winning in social. Customers have an instinctive feel for it. If you're authentic, they know it and it helps cement their relationship with you. If you dump canned answers on them, they'll know that too -- and draw the conclusion that you don't care enough about them to invest 30 seconds in an authentic answer.

Furthermore, if a story has no comments, it is itself a barometer of interest and traffic. Throwing a canned post up there may indeed provoke traffic -- from people mocking your lame comments. Then, the story is no longer the positive thing in the body. It's about the piling on in the comments section by commenters eager to point out how lame your company is. And don't be surprised if a competitor spots the kerfuffle triggered by your mis-step and uses it to demonstrate to customers how you don't "get it." These are lessons we've already learned.

The fact that there are business leaders still treating social media like some kind of marketing dumping ground is terrifying -- and it should be to every employee and investor out there. In a trice, a strategy can be put at place that embarrasses a company and erodes its image among its customers -- not just as a technology-savvy business but as a business that values its customer relationships.

The good news is that the company I was speaking with seemed to realize that when one participant in the conversation started turning blue and had a panic attack, the statement that preceded this behavior might deserve some examination.

I'm hoping that my suggestions -- and those of some very smart people in the company, who also saw the potential hazards in the idea of canned conversations -- changed the thinking a little. We shall see.

Editor's Note: Entertaining and informing, Chris knows his customer relationship management. Read more of his thoughts in CRM: Customer Acquisition is Nice, But Retention is Key to ROI