I returned from South by Southwest Interactive (recap coming soon – suffice to say, it was great, and my talk went well, too!) and, eventually, proceeded to visit my communities and process my usual responsibilities and tasks. When I came to SportsForums.net, I found that a post had been removed that featured a link to the website of a weekly print newspaper.

The author of the post was one of the paper’s staff writers and she had linked to a sports article she had written that was published on their site (as part of their blogs). We knew it was her because her name was part of her username and the e-mail address provided was her e-mail address on the paper’s domain.

The post was her first, one and only and it was basically your typical self promotion advertisement. A link with a quick description of it. It was an obvious violation of our User Guidelines, where we generally do not allow people to create threads to bring attention to links that they are in some way affiliated with. Pretty typical, open and shut case of spam. Not that big a deal, in and of itself. People make mistakes. The post was removed and she was politely notified by one of my moderators.

Instead of apologizing or simply not responding, however, she decided to send a reply that was troubling on a few levels.

First, she claimed that she did not receive any credit for the article, even though her name was credited as the author who wrote it. She followed this up by calling the moderator “uptight,” and by slamming our community as a whole, saying that her link was “more valuable than 95 percent of random thoughts/opinions that make up the bulk of the forum.” Her link with a 30 odd word description was more valuable than virtually all of our community throughout it’s 8 plus years of existence. Ouch.

Having reviewed all of this, I felt that I should notify someone at the publication, to let them know that one of their writer’s was doing this. I know that if one of my staff members was doing this, I’d want to know, because of the damage that it could do to my brand and to other relationships. So, I contacted the editor at the publication to politely and respectfully share the situation and the messages that had been posted, simply to make him aware of it.

What happened next was interesting. The editor backed up the actions of the writer, unequivocally. He even said that this was something that they did regularly and that it has never been a problem before. He even said that her post was “in no way an advertisement.” I was taken aback by this and the lack of regard for our policies and respect for our community. Basically, he acted like I was the weird one.

This represents a serious problem that comes back to respecting someone else’s space, being a good internet citizen and utilizing social media in a way that reflects well on you and those you are associated with. We actually talked about this very subject on the “Avoiding Disaster: How Not to Use Social Media” panel at Blog World Expo 2008. I’ll embed the video here:

Avoiding Disaster: How Not to Use Social Media Panel at Blog World Expo from ManagingCommunities.com on Vimeo.

Rule one of entering a new space is observing that space before making noise. This means watching how other members participate and seeing what the social norms are, checking for any guidelines or rules that the site may have and, if in doubt, asking staff members. The writer skipped the most important part of entering any new community or any form of social media period. If you want to do well, this is very important.

Josh Klein hit this out of the park, by and large, but the bottom line is that if you want to drive traffic from forums, generally speaking, you use your signature (if they allow you one) – you don’t link to yourself in a post, mention your company, websites, etc. Spamming forums is not a marketing strategy. That’s not community, that’s using the community and I am not the weird one. There are many, many communities that feel the very same way. Assuming that you can do something on one community because you’re allowed to – or got away with it – on others, is not appropriate.

What’s the damage here? Well, the person who did this could rightfully be called out publicly for spamming. That’s really not my style and I try to avoid that sort of thing, generally speaking. I wanted to write about this today so that others could learn from this situation and not fall into a similar position.

The damage is reputation. Even though they may have been able to skate by unscathed for this type of behavior, eventually, if you disrespect enough people, there will be repercussions and they won’t be pretty. I now think of this writer, editor, the publication and their parent company in a different light than I would have previously.

The idea of being a good net citizen and respecting others is not naivety, it’s a requirement for being taken seriously and being respected yourself. Everyone makes mistakes, that’s a part of life, but when you do, it’s important that you see them as mistakes, that you apologize and move forward.

Insulting the staff and the community as a whole, because you made a mistake, is digging a deeper hole and is really unprofessional. The reality is that 95% of the posts on SportsForums.net are more valuable than the one this writer made, not less.

So, let’s make progress. Here’s a quick list on what should have happened.

1. Writer joins community, checks guidelines, sees that what she wanted to do is not allowed.

2. In case she didn’t see that or is unsure, she uses our widely visible contact form and asks.

3. She is told it isn’t allowed. At this point, she decides not to participate at all, or:

4. She participates in good will, contributing to discussions without links to sites she is affiliated with. She has a link to her blog in her signature and those who enjoy her posts look at her signature and visit her blog.

Let’s say she didn’t do this, that she went ahead and made the mistake of postingĀ  just one post, and having that one post link to a site she is affiliated with. What would be the step, after being notified by staff?

1. Apologize for the mixup and, if unsure, politely ask for clarification.

2. After receiving clarification, respect whatever the staff member said and either decide not to participate, or:

3. Participate in good will, contributing to discussions without links to sites she is affiliated with. She has a link to her blog in her signature and those who enjoy her posts look at her signature and visit her blog.

That’s the way that it’s done. Some communities may allow posts that we removed and that’s perfectly fine, it’s on them and their policies – we all have different goals. But, there is just no excuse, rationalization or defense for what happened in this case. To try to do otherwise simply damages your own brand because, at the heart of the matter is the fact that you made the mistake in the first place, by violating clearly posted guidelines. There’s nothing wrong with being new – but, there is something wrong with being new and thinking that the space you are new to is yours to do with as you wish.