biz ladies: online etiquette and ethics (part 3)

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Today is the third and final installment from the Alt Summit panel I shared with Joy and Emily about online etiquette. If you missed the earlier posts (they’re long, so hang in there), here are the first two parts:

Today I’m tackling my favorite topic and a few others that are equally important when working in a creative community: Social Media, Collaboration and Contributor Etiquette. Social media etiquette could be a post on its own, but I’m going to condense our talk down to the key points based on what the three of us have learned over the courses of our Twitter and Facebook lives. In addition, I’ll be sharing our tips for collaborating positively with other bloggers and how to support and maintain contributors on your blog as ethically as possible. Finally, I’ll present the top three tips that Joy, Emily and I decided were the most important to take away from our panel talk. They’re listed after the jump below.

So, if you’re ready for the third and final round, let’s dive in! xo, grace

CLICK HERE for the full post (all 4,300 words, yipes!) after the jump!

CONTRIBUTORS

With the blog community being so rich and varied these days, it goes without saying that most of us end up needing or wanting some help. Whether you work with a friend to style shoots for your blog, bring on someone to help manage ad sales or run articles written by other bloggers, contributors are bound to be a part of your blogging life at some point. And that’s a great thing because no blogger is an island and, frankly, blogging becomes more fun when you have someone to share it with (especially when they share your passions).

When I started Design*Sponge, I actively worked against the idea of bringing on other writers. I naively thought I could manage everything on my own (emails, posts, advertising, videos, etc.) and quickly learned that if I wanted to produce quality content for my readers, I’d needed to reach outside of my own laptop. Hiring writers was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but it ultimately opened the door to what Design*Sponge would become, and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made with the blog. Contributors bring new ideas, energy and life to a blog and can often be the thing that pushes you through a creative slump or writing block. Bottom line? Contributors rule.

Now that we’ve established how great blogging life can be with a little help, how do you go about getting that help and making sure they’re taken care of? In an ideal world, here’s what you’re looking for:

1. Someone you can trust to create high-quality original content for your site.
2. Someone who understands the nature of limited blog budgets and is still passionate to help.

If you’ve nailed those two things, you’ve found your dream contributor. Joy, Emily and I have all built teams of contributors around us and agree that you have a few choices when hiring:

1. Hire a regular, paid employee (hourly or on a post/project basis).
2. Hire an unpaid (or lower rate) limited-time intern.
3. Work with friends/artists based on a bartering system where you exchange work for services.

Everyone’s blogging budget is different, so here’s how we suggested handling each situation:

A regular paid employee: It took me 6.5 years to be able to afford my first full-time employee (shout out, Amy Azzarito!), and it was incredibly difficult. While that level of commitment definitely takes time, it takes less time to start paying people in smaller increments for smaller levels of work. Here’s how I advise handling it:

1. Bring on a team member for a trial basis (paid or at a discounted rate) to see how you work together and how their performance changes over a month or two.

2. If that situation works out, create a clear job outline that explains their tasks, due dates and payment for each post, hour worked or project finished. It’s up to you to determine the payment style, but be sure you try the work yourself first to get an idea of how long it takes YOU to finish the task. It can really open your eyes to just how hard your contributors work. (I did that once with Amy Merrick’s “Living In” column and had a whole new appreciation for the work she did.)

3. Consider yearly bonuses or raises when possible. Contributors to most online publications understand that you aren’t working with a Conde Nast budget (not even Conde Nast is working with that budget anymore), so don’t worry if you can’t pay their rent right away. What you should take into consideration is paying someone as much as you can afford for the time they put into their content for your site. If you only have $15 a post and your contributor is okay with that, start there. But be sure that you take time out on a regular basis to thank them for their hard work, acknowledge all that they bring to your site and remind them that you’ll increase their pay rate as soon as you can. I’ve done this for the past four years, and it’s helped me maintain 95% of my team over that time period. Small raises mean a lot to people and show that you’re always doing everything you can share the “wealth,” however limited that may be. (Our increases are sometimes as small as an additional $25 per post per year, but I always communicate that all raises are team-wide and will continue to grow every year and more frequently if possible).

4. Always have a contract. This may seem too formal, but this will get you out of many an awkward situation (especially when working with friends) if you have everything laid out clearly before you move forward. It may be uncomfortable to talk business with a contributor, but it’s better to get those details ironed out before they start than afterward. When both parties are aware of what’s expected and what’s being given in return, you create a smooth, clear path to a healthy working relationship.

Hiring an unpaid (or lower rate) limited-time intern: This situation can be tricky, but Joy said it best when she noted that unpaid or lower-rate contributor positions should always be for a limited amount of time. Not only is it tough for your contributor to make a living that way, but it leads to situations that are more difficult emotionally and can cause resentment to build up. So if you choose to bring on someone temporarily for little or no pay, make sure:

1. The job description, expectation and pay (or lack of) are clearly agreed upon in writing. Most people don’t think to write a contract, but it’s important to have expectations and payment situations in writing. It allows both parties to know what’s happening.

2. Recognize talent and the possibility of growth. Does one of your interns have the ability to help you grow your business? That’s a good sign that it’s time for you to set up a savings account and graduate them from temporary intern to regular paid worker.

3. Share anything you can besides money. Do you have contacts or resources that would help your unpaid contributor achieve a goal? Then by all means share them. You may not be able to pay them money, but if you can pay them with contacts and a leg up, that definitely helps the situation. You can’t get by on contacts forever, but this sort of help and resource sharing does a lot to make clear your intention to always support your contributor whenever possible.

Work with friends/artists based on a bartering system where you exchange work for services: This is something Emily has mastered over at Once Wed. She has done everything from resource sharing to babysitting in exchange for photography and styling services at Once Wed. While not everyone is up for babysitting to cover someone’s photography day-rate, it is that level of commitment that is both admirable and necessary to building a great blog with a limited budget. Here’s what you should keep in mind when setting up a bartering situation:

1. Get it in writing. Notice a theme yet? When in doubt, always put the trade transaction down in writing. Nothing is stickier than someone thinking you were going to give them something or do something for them that you didn’t intend. (Does “babysitting” mean one night? Two? A whole week?) So make sure the details of the barter are at the very least in email form so you can understand each other and what is expected of both parties.

2. Check in regularly to ensure both parties are still happy with the setup. I ran into this recently and really regret not checking in more seriously with people who do work-for-trade situations with me. While I was able learn and improve the situation after a tense discussion, it was a valuable reminder that situations that don’t lead to a regular paycheck often lose their appeal over time. It’s also a good reminder to regularly thank and remind each other of how appreciative you are for their help or work.

3. Make sure that content ownership is clearly outlined in situations like this. Often parties trading work want to retain copyrights for information, imagery and writing since they’re not being “paid” for it in a traditional sense, so make sure you discuss who owns the content or work being published.

Once your situation is set up (short-term internship, paid contributor or bartering buddy), it’s important to remember the key to a healthy working relationship:

ALWAYS EXPRESS GRATITUDE AND (REGULARLY) FOLLOW THROUGH ON YOUR INTENTIONS TO SUPPORT YOUR CONTRIBUTORS ANY WAY YOU CAN

When money is tight and raises aren’t an option, nothing maintains trust and a working relationship like a history of paying on time, saying thank you (and really meaning it) and following through on your dedication to supporting, celebrating and promoting your contributors as often as possible. Most of us understand that blog budgets are low, but it’s a lot easier to understand when you trust and believe that your “boss” is paying you as much as they can and passing along perks, bonuses and raises as often as possible.

COLLABORATION

Collaboration, like contributors, can be the key to a blog’s success, growth and pushing past those pesky creative blocks we all run into now and then. Emily spoke about this topic so passionately that I wish I could replay her entire section of this talk in video form so you could hear it yourself. But since we didn’t have a camera at the talk, I’ll share her points here, along with Joy’s expert advice and some of my own thoughts (this is an area both Joy and Emily have more experience with than myself).

1. Collaboration is a great chance to work with people you admire, respect or look up to for creative inspiration. Often bloggers are intimidated to talk to artists, photographers or other writers they like for fear they won’t write back or won’t have the time to work together. But you’ll never know until you ask. Emily has gotten to work with some truly amazing people in her field because she took the initiative to reach out to them to collaborate on shoots and new ventures for her site.

2. No matter how “big” your site is, it’s always good to stretch yourself and meet new readers outside your niche. My favorite type of collaboration is one with a blogger outside your niche. I often (incorrectly) assume that most people read a range of blog types, but it’s not always the case. You may have a devoted-reader-in-the-making reading another person’s site, not knowing that you exist. So why not team up with people who share your style or your mission, but in a different field? You eliminate any pesky “competitive” feelings you may have staying within your niche and get to combine two worlds (like food and home design) that make sense together but don’t always cross paths.

3. The creative world online is constantly changing — collaboration can help you stay up to date with new ideas and technology. I’m always trying to stay up to date with what’s happening in web, publishing and technology trends, but I don’t always have time to find what’s cool and new in every field I love. By collaborating with people, you benefit from your shared resources, experience and any new ideas and tools they have picked up along the way. Don’t be afraid to dive into a project with someone you’ve never worked with, especially if they present the ability to learn something new from each other.

So what are some etiquette points to keep in mind when setting up a collaboration?

1. As I mentioned above, no one ever went wrong writing down the details of a project before diving in. Who’s doing what work? Are you publishing the fruits of your collaborative efforts on BOTH sites? Will someone be getting ad revenue from the project? Decide up front how you divide the costs and any income from the project so you don’t end up with a burned bridge or hurt feelings.

2. Discuss any projects or recurring work/posts that may arise from the original idea. Are both of you allowed to take the idea and run with it after the collaboration is done? Or does one person own the new theme/project/idea? Make sure that’s clear if you intend to expand on this idea in the future.

Bottom line: Collaborating with other bloggers and artists keeps your site (and your brain) full of ideas and new content and opens the door to all sorts of opportunities you didn’t even know existed. So never be afraid to approach someone you admire with a fun collaboration idea! :)

SOCIAL MEDIA

Okay, I made this section the last for a reason: it’s the topic that’s nearest and dearest to my heart. Primarily because I was late to the Twitter game (Aaron was singing its praises for a full year before I agreed to try it), so I’ve had to learn quickly. And what I’ve learned is that outlets like Facebook and Twitter have become my new favorite place to have frequent, informal (but still meaningful) conversations with readers and members of the online community.

While the focus of this article (and our panel) is etiquette and ethics, those ideas are actually tied into bigger questions like, “How do you build a successful social media presence and get followers?” which is usually what people are most interested in hearing.

So before we dive in, let me start by saying: Everyone’s experience with and goals for social media are different. You have to determine what your goal is when using them and let that dictate how you speak through each outlet.

That said, we all share a common goal that runs at the heart of the idea of social media: communicating our story online. And no matter what the goal of that communication is, there is one underlying etiquette rule that applies to everyone: Be polite, honest and courteous when communicating with others and try to walk in their shoes before judging.

This idea often goes right out the window when people get online because they feel the courage that comes with anonymity. And it’s led to social media outlets becoming the new version of the high school cafeteria, a place where some people enjoy virtually tripping someone while they’re carrying a tray and then making that awful “Ooohhhh!” noise while pointing a finger. And well, I don’t like it. Namely because it seems to fly in the face of all the good that can be done with amazing platforms like Twitter and Facebook. So today I’m going to try to share some tips designed to help you focus on the positive and all that you can achieve with these sites.

BE YOURSELF

No one ever went wrong speaking honestly and truthfully online. So why should your social networking life be any different? People become loyal followers because they trust and believe you — be careful not to damage that by talking in a tone or style that doesn’t suit who you are. Fair or not, people will make decisions about who you are based on how you sound online, so always keep that in mind. If you’re being yourself, you’re more likely to build a following that actually knows YOU and has genuine connections. THIS is the key to building a following — no other technique will bring you lasting success other than speaking honestly and letting people get to know the real you.

BE TRANSPARENT

Like any other online world, social networking is now full of advertising and sponsorship opportunities. From sponsored tweets to paid trending topics, there are now many ways that people can profit from their social networking strength. I’ve chosen not to do any of these things yet because I’m really relishing the opportunity to just talk and connect without people without the added pressure of advertising. Twitter is free and it doesn’t cost me anything to keep/host, so I love that I can keep it going without having to find funding. That said, if you’re interesting in pursuing sponsorship, always be transparent with your followers. Let them know that a tweet or hash tag is sponsored. Nothing ruins trust like finding out someone’s suggestions were secretly paid for.

LISTEN TO YOUR FOLLOWERS

No matter how many followers you have, their feedback is valuable and worth listening to. It’s true that there can be a lot of oddballs out there in the web world, but the people who choose to follow you and contribute mature conversations are people you should be listening to. If they let you know that you’re not talking enough, talking too much, using a tone that’s uncomfortable to hear, etc., listen to them. You may not necessarily change the way you do things, but it is always good to have your ear to the ground and hear the response to your words.

Tip: Be sure to take all comments with a grain of salt. In the same way that one positive social networking comment doesn’t mean everyone out there loves you, one negative comment (believe me, social networking jerk-lurkers are out there in full force) does NOT mean everyone hates you, what you just said or how you’re saying it. Do your best to put it in perspective and remember that one comment does not equal a thousand.

THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK

While it’s important to say what’s on your mind and be honest, people online have a very good memory and a low tolerance for complaining. As much as it feels good to vent about an issue you have online, if your social networking feeds become one long trail of gripes, you’re more likely to lose followers than you realize. No one wants to feel like they’re constantly hearing negativity from anyone, so be careful to limit your complaints or vent-sessions to a minimum.

Why limit them? Because online is forever. People forget this so often and it’s a huge issue when it comes to your business online. Even if you delete a post, a comment or a tweet/update from your account, it can still live on in internet caches or in someone’s screen grab. So be careful to remember that everything you say can (and sometimes will) come back to haunt you. So don’t say anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying with your real name attached to it.

YOU’RE A PERSON, NOT A ROBOT

One of my biggest pet peeves (and the one I hear about most from other bloggers) is when people use their feeds as social pitch machines. Sure, we’re all responsible for using whatever means possible to support ourselves and our businesses, but it’s not ALL we are. So your social networking feed shouldn’t be ALL business ALL the time. People will follow you because you share updates about your life, your work and your inspirations. If you cut off one of those legs, your balance will be compromised. So keep things in balance and make sure you’re not turning into a megaphone shouting about discounts and sales all the time.

Tip: This is still evolving, but most bloggers I know do NOT like to be pitched aggressively via Twitter or Facebook. If they have a blog, use that to contact them, unless someone has said “please send your pitches to me via Twitter”. If you’re using your Twitter/Facebook conversations ONLY to pitch your work, you’re missing out on a chance to make a REAL connection. I always recognize people who have real conversations with me on Twitter so that when I see their emails in my blog submission inbox, I click on them first or pay extra attention to them. But the first people I’m quick to drown out are those that digitally shout at me with “CHECK OUT MY . . . ” over and over again on Twitter or Facebook. Yes, it’s a means of communication, but you should communicate like a real person, not a robot who just shouts about business all the time.

BEWARE OF THOSE WHO USE SOCIAL NETWORKING TO WIELD THREATS

I’ll be completely honest, this topic is tough for me to discuss without getting angry. Namely because I, and several other bloggers with sizable social media followings, have been called out publicly on Twitter many times over for not doing what a small group of people demand that we do. And that demand revolves primarily around the idea that “ALL PEOPLE ON SOCIAL NETWORKING SHOULD FOLLOW BACK OR FRIEND ANYONE THAT DOES THE SAME TO THEM”.

And well, that’s BS. Complete and utter BS. Blogging and social networking are not tit-for-tat situations, and I don’t want anyone to be pressured into having disingenuous conversations or relationships because other people say they should. I approach my discussions online like I approach them with friends — one at a time and with sincerity. Whether you have one follower/friend or 1 million, your responsibility is to use your account to have real conversations, period. People who try to threaten or guilt other people into building up their numbers are online bullies and well, I’ve had enough of that online.

How can you avoid this issue? First and foremost, put yourself in someone else’s shoes before speaking. If you’re upset that someone doesn’t follow you back or reply to your tweet, don’t immediately assume they’re a jerk. Maybe they’re busy, maybe they a bad day — you don’t know. And believe me, you wouldn’t want your entire personality judged based on one tweet, so do your best not to do that to others.

Another way to prevent this sort of issue is to focus on how you manage your own social networking feed. When people become fixated on how other people run their social networking lives, they’re rarely paying attention to their own behavior online. So do your best to evaluate how YOU feel you’re treating your online followers. Do you reply to thoughtful comments? Do you thank people when something nice happens? Do you give constructive criticism the response it deserves? If so, you’re doing a good job of giving the people interacting with you the response they deserve. Are they allowed an automatic “friend” or “follow” for saying something? Well, that’s up for you to decide, not someone else.

Bottom line: Don’t let other people bully you into doing anything online. If you feel you’re having real conversations with people, enjoying your social networking experience and are building a real community around you, it’s a good sign that someone else’s “rules” may not be right, realistic or applicable to you.

OUR TOP THREE TAKE-HOME TIPS

Joy, Emily and I knew that our panel might be a lot to take in during one 45-minute session, so we each wanted to leave people with a singular idea that we thought was the most important to remember. Here’s what we had to say:

Joy: Treat others the way you’d want to be treated. (This simple rule will ensure that you give the type of positive behavior you’d like to receive from others, whether you’re working with them on your blog or tweeting with them online.)

Emily: Collaboration is key. (Collaborating with other people can open doors for your business and help you grow creatively.)

Grace: When it comes to online etiquette, only one equation matters: TRANSPARENCY = TRUST. (Always be honest with your readers and give THEM the choice to decide how they feel about the choices you make with your blog/business. If you hide things from them, they’re not able to truly get to know you and your business. So always be honest and open; it is the one key to building long-lasting loyalty online.)

IN SUMMARY

These ideas and tips are changing every day as we all learn more about, and experience more from, social networking. Since this is a topic I am incredibly interested in, I would really love to hear about YOUR experiences with any of these topics. Have you had a great collaboration experience you want to share? Have you dealt with a social networking situation that was tough? I’d love to hear your thoughts, your experiences and your ideas so we can share in this communal learning process. We all have very different experiences online, and we all have something valuable to share. Thanks for listening, guys. I’ve really, really enjoyed getting to discuss these topics because I thought they were things that only a few of us cared about or noticed. It has been infinitely inspiring and uplifting to know how much the blog world has changed and matured over the past few years. I am so proud to be a part of a community that takes its work seriously and cares about improving relationships with each other. xo, grace

  1. PKae says:

    Was away for a bit but wanted to thank you for your answer to my question, now. You are amazing!

  2. Thank you for writing these posts. Very thought-provoking!!

  3. aly says:

    i think that if bloggers want to be taken seriously as businesses in terms of crediting etc, then they should also be careful and abide by unpaid intern laws! (aka that they are rarely legal…)

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/03/business/03intern.html

    1. grace says:

      aly

      a lot of bloggers pay their interns. we haven’t had unpaid interns since the law went into effect and i know a lot of other bloggers haven’t either.

      grace

  4. Suzanne says:

    I was just forwarded this by a friend. This was really a great informational blog that has helped me start figuring this whole Twitter-, Blog-sphere out! I didn’t realize how much social media could help my business, but am beginning to see the potential. Thank you!

  5. anna says:

    i’ve just read all 3 parts, these are fantastic, it’s so hard to find real information on what’s right or wrong especially in Australia we are probably at, in my opinion, where the USA was at in 2005 except with subtle differences like the use of twitter and Facebook being very prevalent for SME and blogs. i’m starting a blog and EVERYTHING you’ve said in relation to etiquette completely makes common sense and was the approach i would take naturally but it’s nice to have it confirmed by people with experience. i wasn’t aware that people ask for freebies (i kinda think how dare they), BUT at the same time you don’t want to be left behind by not taking advantage of certain things, all business can be dog eat dog i guess, like not having to ask for permission to use an image to promote a retail product, i still think i will though and see how it goes just to be on the safe side. one thing i wasn’t expecting is the fact that people may leave negative comments? i find this bizarre, but it makes me excited to see what’s going to happen. thanks again, muchly appreciated xx

  6. Henry says:

    I will immediately seize your rss feed as I can’t in finding your email subscription link or e-newsletter service. Do you have any? Please let me know in order that I may just subscribe. Thanks.

  7. Anonymous says:

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