June 19, 2013 UPDATE: I just got off the phone with Chris Ott, one of the founders of Referral Key. I recognized his name on my caller ID and was bracing for a rough call. It is completely understandable that they are not fans of this post. He could not have been nicer. It’s been over two years since this blog post went up, and he reached out to let me know that they’ve made many changes to Referral Key. He wanted me to know that much hard work has gone into improving the service. I told him that, full disclosure, I was not a user of the service and would not have time to give it a rigorous test drive in order to verify his representations. However, I agreed that, if he had an updated story to tell, I’d let him tell it here. I look forward to receiving some new information from him on the improvements they’ve made. Once I get the info, I’ll be sure to post another update here.
Post from May 2011 begins here:
As a Social Media Strategist, I often feel a slight tug on my shirt sleeve whenever a new service debuts. When Quora came out (and when Scoble jumped in hard), I felt a need to check it out. I mean, I do this stuff for a living. I had better know what’s going on in the space. Diaspora? It’s the next Facebook! Joined!
So when I started receiving (lots of) emails in my inbox from people asking me to join Referral Key, I thought it was the next big service that I was going to have to try. Turns out, it’s not a new service. I found a Hubspot case study and accompanying video from February 2009, where Hubspot (a company I love) talks about how they helped ReferralKey.com increase their site traffic and leads. I suppose it feels new to me because this is the first I’ve heard of it, and I’ve received over 100 invitations to join in the past few days. That sort of groundswell usually accompanies a hot new product.
The first time I got an email with the subject line “Are you taking on new clients?” Holy crap, I was excited! You bet I’m taking clients! (what a hook). Ten seconds later, I felt the shame of spam, deflated, and just a little pissed. After receiving 100 of these emails? No one likes spam.
Here is what the typical email looks like:
Subject: Are you taking on new clients?
If you’re taking on new clients, I’d like to include you in my private referral network to send you business leads through Referral Key. Please accept my invitation below. Thanks!
Name of Their Company
The message itself is almost identical every time. Subject line, body, signature…. all the same. This deluge of messages has been nothing short of annoying.
Now, in almost every public speaking appearance I make, I get on my soapbox for at least a minute or two and tell the audience that they need to be nice. The rules of online are not that much different than offline. Mom taught us that there are things we think that we don’t say. You always have to be nice. When curating content online, it is vitally important to remember this.
So it is with a bit of trepidation that I report to you that I responded to 30 of these emails. I did so for research purposes. To each person, I asked only the following:
May I ask why you are sending this to me?
Maybe this wasn’t nice. My intention was not to make the sender feel bad for having spammed me, or to sound like or be a dick. I wanted to see how many people would respond, and I wanted to read those responses. I wanted to learn something about social media and personal branding.
Out of 30 emails I sent, I received seven responses. Maybe I would have received more had I phrased my question differently. This isn’t a scientific poll. Here is a sampling of the responses:
“When I signed up for referralkey via an invitation, the site went through my LinkedIn contacts, of which you are one of my first degree connections, and sent the invitation asking you to join. If you don’t want to participate, please feel free to ignore the request.”
“This is a new website, just starting up, where individuals and business can support each other in referrals and I thought 1st, it is a good idea and 2nd that you might like , at least, to be aware of it. If you are not interested, then no problem. Didn’t mean to offend you or cause you any undo concerns. Thanks for your response.”
“I didn’t. Somebody hacked my account.”
“Hi! Sorry, I thought it was a great service and wanted to extend the invitation to my linkedIN followers. It allows people to get in touch and has quite an amazing business model. Hope it helps you!”
“I thought you might like it. It’s free. Maybe it’s for you….maybe it’s not. Never hurts to look.”
“This is a new social media site that works with LinkedIn. I received a few invites this morning from my LinkedIn contacts so I did the same. I am still learning this new site but so far this morning I have found two great contacts that I will most likely be doing business with directly from this site. If you are interested in connecting with me there, please feel free to accept my invite. In no way did I mean to make you feel like you were getting spammed.”
“Sorry for the intrusion. Seems there was an error when they imported EVERYONE on my LinkedIn network, and included you in it. My sincere apologies…as this usually happens with a huge list…”
So these are 1st degree LinkedIn connections asking me to join a new service. We have some people calling the email to me an error. We have some people blaming it on a hack. Some are saying they were just trying to be helpful. A few people really took the time to try and explain Referral Key to me.
The problem? Referral Key has no idea how bad this avalanche of emails is making them look (click on the picture at the top of this blog post! That’s my email inbox). These messages, all identical, all with that hook of a subject line, are not good for their business. For better or worse, I now consider them to be a less-than-reputable company. But even worse, you, the Referral Key user, have no idea what joining a service like this is going to make you look like. In this case, it made these people look like the Spammy McSpammer MLM Sham Wow guy. I’ll bet most of these people aren’t actually like that, and the service is probably on the up and up, but that’s the impression they are leaving. Perhaps it’s Referral Key’s fault, as their system is the one generating these cookie cutter emails in mass volume.
However, as a businessperson with a personal brand, you need to be aware of your every move and do your best to calculate benefits and risks before joining the next social media platform du jour. Do not join a service unless you have a plan and a goal in mind for your participation and time spent. Do not join a Twitter automation service that sends annoying tweets from your account like “The following users unfollowed me today: @User1, @User2, @User3. Try it at LoserTwitterService.com.” Don’t invite people to your mafia family on Facebook. Stop clicking on random links that people DM or Facebook message you – they are often virus traps and you’re spreading spam. And stop joining services that blast out marketing messages Uzi-style as ReferralKey.com does. The bad taste you are leaving in people’s mouths is not worth it.
5/25/11 POST ADDENDUM – per Chris Ott of Referral Key:
“The message is fully customizable and you can choose to uncheck anyone just like any other service. http://imageshack.us/m/109/8072/emailimportation.jpg ”
I am not sure why some people have commented that they were unable to utilize this screen, but thank you Chris for bringing it to our attention.