Digital Content Etiquette

Today's technology is transforming life and the way we communicate. New communication networks are replacing traditional telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings.

According to the Radicati Group, each channel - email, instant messaging and social networking - is expected to reach nearly 4 billion accounts worldwide by 2015. Platforms like Google+ Hangouts, Gchat, Yammer and Skype empower people to communicate anywhere, anytime. Most of these conversations occur in written form where the message can be spread around the globe within seconds. Therefore, exercising proper etiquette online is just as important as practicing good behavior offline.  

Words Impact Image

"When communicating online, be authentic, relevant and don't post anything you wouldn't want your grandmother to read," said Kent Lewis, president and founder of Anvil Media and Formic Media. "Always keep the conversation clean and civil. When crafting a message, choose your words wisely and be aware of the tone. Keep in mind that reading a message electronically lacks the non-verbal cues and lends itself to misinterpretation. Depending on the nature of the business and relationship, emoticons may or may not be appropriate. Know your audience. Follow suit and use them sparingly." 

Text messaging may be efficient and convenient, but it offers a significant margin of error for misunderstanding. When texting, identify yourself in the message as your information may not be stored in the recipient's phone. Be careful to select the intended party from your address book and make sure to respond to the correct sender.  

Be considerate.

"Avoid using ALL CAPS and abbreviated text such as LMAO$!" adds Lewis. Responding in-kind with clients or supervisors may be acceptable in some instances. However, the language may be confusing or deemed inappropriate by others."

"Furthermore, using abbreviations frequently may become habitual and spill into other forms of written communications," said Sally Ramsay, senior vice president at Pierpont Communications. "Best practice: be professional. Reserve texting for brief messages, using complete words and sentences such as "File sent." Remember, texting can be uncomfortable for some or costly for others depending on the user's plan." 

Email messages employ the same rules as other forms of business communication. The message needs to be organized and grammatically correct, which includes running spellcheck. Start with a relevant subject line that aligns with the email message. In the message, address the reader with an appropriate greeting. Then, write the most important points concisely in the first paragraph. Bullet point action items and specify the owners as well as the deadlines. Finally, add a closure followed by a signature. 

Be mindful.

Mailboxes have storage limitations. Minimize the amount of attachments and the use of wallpaper. When sending messages to multiple contacts, place recipients in groups to maintain privacy. Send only relevant messages and use the "Reply All" option accordingly. Only use the priority status (!) for messages requiring urgent attention. 

Spreading the Message

Social Media is powerful tool that can help a company achieve its business goals and objectives by educating people, disseminating quality, relevant information, and responding immediately to a crisis. According to Ramsay, "Companies today are responding faster to complaints made on social media platforms than to telephone calls. When using social media, assign the responsibility to someone who can monitor the conversation, access information and mitigate."

Negative comments will happen, so be prepared. Be polite, listen, restate the problem, diffuse the situation and offer a solution. If necessary, use private messaging to move the conversation offline. 

Facebook is personal and is intended for use with friends and family only.

"Be cognizant of your posts, knowing the content will be shared and last forever. With photos, tag people judiciously and get permission to tag others," said Ramsay. "Monitor the content on your page, and delete inappropriate comments or tags immediately. Decline invitations or unfriend someone who exhibits lewd behavior. Remember, you're guilty by association. Therefore, be smart about accepting friend requests."

Lewis suggests that users create different circles of friends to separate personal from professional and ensure posts are flagged appropriately to mitigate risk.  

LinkedIn is a platform for building a professional network.

"When meeting people in person, secure an email address to send an invitation to connect; ensure invitations reference how you know that person and how a connection will be mutually beneficial; create value early and share relevant news often," said Lewis.

Additionally, when accepting an invitation, respond politely with a personal message.  

Legal Considerations

For protection, a company should explain acceptable online conduct in an Employee Handbook or Social Media Policy, provide ongoing training, review best practices and discuss common sense rules.

"Discuss the First Amendment with associates and explain the gravity of leaking confidential information or announcing internal news. Regardless of whether the behavior was accidental or malicious, it can have damaging effects on a company," asserts Ramsay. "Today, employees have ample opportunity to interact with clients online and make mistakes. If a mistake occurs, acknowledge it and apologize as soon as possible."    

Social media disasters have happened and will happen again so be sure to have a plan of action in place. Be aware of who you friend and the consequences of your online behavior.

"People have lost jobs, companies have lost accounts and reputations have been tarnished," states Loren Brown, J.D., business law professor at the University of Houston-Downtown.

He cites the case, Zeran v. America Online, in which the defamed party was injured by defamatory speech of a third party. Unfortunately, the injured party lost in court and there was no recourse. 

Reputation Management

On personal and professional levels, communicating online offers convenience, maintains relationships and is useful for sharing information. When conversing online, follow these basic rules to establish a reputation of geniality: be nice, be respectful of others, avoid arguing online, and understand that your actions impact your employer's image as well as your personal brand. To protect your identity, set your account privacy settings and monitor these as privacy policies change without notice.

"Finally, remember the adage: fools names and fools faces always seen in public places. Be sure to create an awareness and always think before you post or click 'send'," concludes Ramsay.

About the Author: Michelle Wicmandy is a Marketing Lecturer for the University of Houston-Downtown, an ethnically diverse liberal arts institutions in the southwest that offers baccalaureate and master's degree programs. She also works as a freelance online marketing consultant and helps clients with their email, social media, and web analytic projects.