telling secrets

Many brands say that sparking and sustaining conversations with customers is a main focus of their social media strategy. And why not? Social media gives a voice to anyone, and allows for interactions that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

But social media isn’t just a free-for-all of communication. As more members have voiced concerns about privacy and security, social networks have put protections in place that can limit who can send you missives. Some networks even restrict what types of profiles can exchange messages.

While this is a reassuring move for security, it does create a difficult situation for brands. From a marketing standpoint, your company needs to know what options it has for contacting fans and followers on any given channel. Your customer service reps should know their options for having one-on-one chats to resolve client concerns. Or if your HR department wants to reach out to potential job candidates, it may not want to do that in a public forum. Here’s an overview of your options for private conversations on several popular social media networks.



Direct Messages, Twitter’s private messages, have been in the news lately thanks to some changes in the network’s policy. The standard policy only allowed people to send Direct Messages to their followers. In October, Twitter rolled out a feature that allowed people with accounts to enable receiving messages from anyone who followed them, regardless of whether the connection was mutual. After just a few weeks, though, Twitter removed the option and returned to the old standard.

This means that in order to have a private conversation with somebody on Twitter, both accounts need to be following each other. It’s important to be aware of that limitation if you use the network for sales or customer service. You’ll want to make sure that you don’t ask for private information, such as phone numbers or email addresses, that has to be given in a public forum. If you want to have a conversation without following the account back, then your best bet is to offer an email address and bring the conversation offline.



Facebook’s messaging rules have changed drastically over time, but its current policies are similar to Twitter’s. Pages can’t initiate conversations by message, but they can respond to them. If you want Facebook members to have the option to contact you, you’ll need to double-check that your Page is able to receive messages by checking the appropriate box in the Messages tab of your settings.

Features such as messaging all fans or all attendees of an event are no longer available. Facebook’s focus is mostly on communicating through Wall Posts, so starting a private discussion isn’t an option. However, since you can make your Page open to receiving messages, it is possible to tell your fans that they can start a conversation. This makes it possible to deal with more sensitive inquiries while still on the network, as long as your followers choose to do so. Another option, as with Twitter, is to direct people to a phone helpline or an email address and have the conversation moved off the social channel.



As a professional network, LinkedIn will probably be of the most use to members of your company’s HR department. Messaging restrictions on this network depend on the level of account you have. For free accounts, messages can only be exchanged between people who are connected.

The internal option for reaching out to somebody who isn’t a connection is to purchase an “InMail.” This feature is available for members with premium accounts, or can be purchased individually by any member. Free accounts can buy up to 10 InMail credits. Again, conversations on LinkedIn usually center around job opportunities at your company, so use your InMail options wisely for reaching out to people who are not connections.



More and more brands are looking to Tumblr for either website hosting or long-form blogging related to their businesses. This platform has several options for communicating between members. First is “Fan Mail,” which is a direct message option. It becomes available once an individual has been following the Tumblr in question for more than 48 hours. For brands, this is most likely how a follower will reach out to you. Unless you follow them back, you won’t be able to initiate messages.

A more question-focused option for corresponding is “Ask.” When enabled on a Tumblr account, this feature allows both members and anonymous readers to send questions. You can answer publicly by publishing an Ask to your blog, or you can choose to send a private message back to the asker. Responses to anonymous queries are always published since the question isn’t linked to a specific Tumblr account. If you handle a large volume of customer questions or moderate lots of interaction on your Tumblr, this can be a very useful feature. By default, Ask is turned off, but it can be enabled in the Settings tab for your blog.

How big an issue is private messaging between you and your target audience on social media? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Image credits: Senia L, Garrett Heath, Marco Paköeningrat, Nan Palmero, Josh James]