One of the big challenges we face as therapists in practices which require us to do some element of marketing, is our ambivalence about social media. Readers of my last post will note the irony that this one will encourage us to be thoughtful about how we use social media to market. But in my opinion, the question of whether one uses the internet and social media has been supplanted by the question of how. Fundamentalist ethical stances tell us, I won’t ever do X, and it is easy to hold rigid stances like this when one doesn’t want to have to engage thoughtfully with things, like social media in this case.
But I’m assuming two things about you if you’re still with me. First, that you are ready to move from a fundamentalist stance to one that requires more self-reflection and flexibility; and second, that you’re interested in my opinion on this. That’s why I used the term Manifesto, with tongue firmly in cheek: These are my opinions and my ethical stance on email, and you may or may not agree with them. They allow me to sleep at night, but maybe they won’t do the same for you. And I’m practicing radical transparency, so you can know how I work, and opt out of working with me that way. But first, here are some underlying assertions for you to consider:
Economics of Popularity Vs. Economics of Intimacy
One of the challenges that email falls squarely in the middle of is dual and dueling ethics of popularity and intimacy. The internet caters to both of these ethics to some extent, but the ethics of intimacy is not as easy a fit. So the market pushes popularity more, and confuses the two some. People want to have lots of “followers” on Twitter, “friends” on Facebook, and be “in” or encircled on Google+. The value here, like popularity in general, is more emblematic than holistic. And there IS a value to popularity, no matter what you were told by adults in high school. We pay attention to how many followers a person has on social sites, how many +1s they get. They become an approximation that hints at value. Sometimes on the interwebs, an economics of popularity is all you have to go on without digging (and yes, you should be digging, but more on that later). For better or for worse, this ethics of popularity is what gamification can become preoccupied with, with its leaderboards and badges if we aren’t careful.
The Ethics of intimacy is a lot different. It presupposes time, relationship, and evaluation through experience. Of the hundreds of people you network with, these are the 10 people you refer to regularly.
As therapists, we value intimacy. As humans we are seduced by popularity. As businesspeople we need to negotiate the two economies ethically. Some of this includes looking at whether we are confusing the two, and where we get indignant. Are you wanting to build an email list like a Twitter following? Do you think that the two are absolutely distinct? I suggest that the answer to both questions should be “No.”
People sometimes love it when they follow, or connect with people via social media, and are then horrified when they get an email from them. They were hoping for a pure economy of popularity, one more hit or friend, not intimacy, with the vulnerability and responsibility it can entail. But in growing one’s business, I think there is a delicate balance between the two.
I have a group on LinkedIn that I moderate and curate, which has over 1,000 members. Some of you read this blog via that group. People ask to join it regularly, and then dialogue, lurk, or meet others through it. They often utilize it initially for the economics of popularity predominantly, passing over groups with 50 or 100 members because the 1,000 means something to them.
When they are added to the list, I send each person a connect invitation which says we have the group in common, and that is how I “know” them. If they accept they are added to my network, and I only ask once. If not, they enjoy the group and whatever it gives them.
I often translate these situations into embodied reality to inform my ethics. When we meet at a group or professional engagement, you ask me for your business card, or I for yours. We may say we forgot them, whether it is true or not, or we may exchange them. But I have never had someone pull a card out of his wallet, than say to me, “I’m only giving you this if you promise never to use it to contact me, and I also want you to promise you will never give this contact information to anyone who might want to work with me.”
With the exchange of the business card, virtual or physical, we are moving beyond the ethics of popularity. If you want to network with me as an individual on LinkedIn or with your business card, my expectation is that you are willing to be in contact with me in a more intimate (from a business perspective) way. On some level I think we all understand something of this; it’s why we don’t friend patients on facebook or follow them on Twitter.
Once you are in my LinkedIn network personally, my Outlook program downloads your email info and then I upload it into my Constant Contact database. This is intentional, as it helps keep patient emails separate from business ones. I only use the Constant Contact list for emailing my monthly (at most) newsletter, and maybe a book announcement when one comes out or a survey. All told, you should never get more than 2 pieces of email from me a month and very rarely that.
At the top of every email is the option for you to unsubscribe, and one of the reasons I love Constant Contact is that once you opt out, the program locks me out of emailing you via them ever again. It helps me manage a largeish list in a way that makes sure if you want to be unbothered by my newsletter you’re all set. I average a 26% open rate on my newsletter, and about 25 people opt out each one month. I think this is a good thing.
I would never sell these email lists. Ever. But yes I might share it with a colleague. I have offered to do this a total of once in the 5 years I have had it. This is with Susan Giurleo. I have known Susan for just shy of a quarter of a century (sorry Susan, the truth is out 😉 ) have followed and read her work and collaborated with her on projects. She hasn’t accepted the email list as of yet, but if she does, you can opt out of it just as easily on her part, because she practices ethical marketing. And if you have known me, shared friendship and trust with me, argued and collaborated with me about psychology, and demonstrated your work ethic with me for over 20 years, let me know, and I’ll consider sharing my list with you also.
Ethics of Form, Ethics of Content
So that is some of the process and my thinking behind it. But there is another piece that gets overlooked a lot in discussions of ethics, email lists and marketing your practice. We need to not just attend to an Ethics of Form, but an Ethics of Content as well. In other words, don’t just look at how you are contacting people, but ask yourself what you are contacting them about.
To a degree this goes both ways. People rarely complain when they get an email asking whether they are accepting new patients, but often get downright hostile when the email is not clearly serving their self-interest. If that sounds like you, you need to look beneath or behind the Ethics of Form reaction and questions (“How did you get my email?”) to Ethics of Content ones (“What are you sending me?”) It is wrong to send a bomb through the postal service even if you have the victim-to-be’s address and use proper postage. Content matters, and has an Ethical dimension as well.
For those of us that are contacting people with newsletters, etc., we need to practice both forms of Ethics, in my opinion. I never send a newsletter to my list which only broadcasts my book and services. At least 2/3 of my newsletter contains articles and research I think may be of interest, or news and resources that folks can use. Sometimes if a colleague is doing something new and interesting I pass that on as well. I never sell advertisement space on my newsletter, and consider it the twelve times a year I approach my colleagues with content. And of course I mention my work, because I’m in a business that I want people to know about. I also ask people to keep me in mind for speaking engagements, and the last time I was explicit about this, I received three inquiries that day, two of which converted to speaking engagements.
So what I’m saying is to please consider both as a reader and a writer of emails, the Ethics of Content as well as Ethics of Form. Do I get hundreds of emails I don’t find helpful? Yes, and big deal! I’m a big boy, I can sort through them, drag as it may be, as easily as my paper junk mail. And if I were to sift through them, the majority of the people who got my email address got it from something I wanted from them originally, whether it was access to a website or voicing a comment. I’m far more concerned with Ethics of Content than Ethics of Form these days, and where I am really concerned about the latter is how Target knows you’re pregnant, not some poor psychotherapist trying to market their practice.
I am not responsible for your digital literacy.
Here’s my last and most provocative point. My newsletter clearly has ways to unsubscribe at the get-go. And you got on the list initially because you wanted something from me. So it is your responsibility to take yourself off the newsletter if you don’t like it. Digital literacy is something we all need to have in the 21st century, and knowing how to take yourself off of email lists, out of forums, and filter your inbox is part of what you need to do as part of your daily life online as well as offline.
You can try to stay fundamentalist about it, but then don’t expect to take advantage of the web either. Don’t think you can post a blog comment, or subscribe yourself to free content, and then be surprised that people want to contact you back. Don’t expect your outrageous indignation to carry you very far. If you are saying, “How dare you email me?” be prepared to answer the question, “How dare you ask me to network or provide you with free content?” If you were willing to get the freebies, be prepared to get an email now and then. If you wanted to add one more “follower” to grow yourself, be prepared that we’re going to ask you for something in return. Undying fealty went out with the Middle Ages.
Look, we all need to come up with some sort of ethical structure to navigate Web 2.0, and we also need to be considerate of others’ time and bandwidth when we contact them. But we need to start understanding how we participate in this process by engaging in the Economies of Popularity and Intimacy. We need to pay attention to both Ethics of Form and Content, our own as well as others. And we need to accept that we are responsible for being lifelong learners of digital literacy. Because, frankly, Target is the one you need to worry about. I just told you how I operate, don’t think they are going to.
Agree? Disagree? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts? And not just to get your email address. >;-)