When an old friend reaches out to you on Facebook wondering if you’re up for a chat, you’ll probably feel pretty good about the situation. Maybe even a little warm and fuzzy.

If a salesperson does the same, your reaction? Very different – but not always negative. There’s actually a lot to be said about social selling when done well.

Social media is great for researching prospects, staying in touch and building relationships. It’s also where we spend most of our time online as users, and where buyers make an increasing amount of their purchasing decisions.

It’s a valuable way to enable personalization and stand out from the thousands of cold, automated, template-generated emails that other sales reps send on the daily. (And if you’re not using personalization, you should be. There are boatloads of good sales tools that can automate personalized communications and serve up news and insights about your leads.)

It’s a key channel for sales, with 44% of sales teams citing it as a must-have in their toolkit. More than half of social sellers report increasing their lead count and building more meaningful client relationships. They also tend to meet or exceed quotas more often than their peers.

But there’s a general feeling that social selling can get creepy.

Sales reps themselves reported it in a recent Hubspot survey. “The information imbalance is disconcerting to some reps, especially as they fear coming off as stalker-ish.” But buyers and consumers were fairly open to it.

In fact, they expected personalized outreach, even if there were certain behaviours they didn’t like or felt on-the-fence about.

So how can you make those connections and personalize without entering stalker territory?

Avoid cold requests.

If you don’t have a direct relationship, look for a common connection and ask for an introduction. Hubspot found about three quarters of respondents found it off-putting when salespeople contacted them out of the blue, but just 35% felt the same when they shared an acquaintance.

Focus on LinkedIn and Twitter.

LinkedIn is purpose-built professional. Twitter is, by default, full of strangers following us. And those are the platforms on which people feel most open to approach. As for Facebook? That’s still personal territory for most. Over three quarters of buyers said they’d find a friend request from a stranger to be off-putting. Facebook messages are considered even creepier, with 81% of people saying they wouldn’t appreciate receiving one from a sales rep.

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Start with a light touch.

It’s not all connection requests; it’s also likes, comments and messaging. And they all have different degrees of creepy. Shallower interactions (likes, favourites and retweets) are more welcome at first than comments, direct messages and even connection requests. Better to make your name a little more familiar in someone’s feed first before diving deeper.

Don’t announce everything you know.

Just because you have all this information at your disposal doesn’t mean you need to bring it up. Instead, use it to inform where your conversation goes and what questions you ask. Remember, the goal isn’t to show off how much you know, but to learn more about a prospect and assess whether they’re a good lead.

Keep it professional.

It’s relatively acceptable to respond to company news, industry trends and work-related updates someone has shared publicly and openly. It’s less so to like or comment on their kids’ graduation photos or that video of Rover at the dog park last weekend. If it wouldn’t fit into a conversation you’d have with a client during a meeting, it doesn’t belong in your introduction either.

Give people space.

It can be tempting to email someone immediately after they liked or commented on a post you shared, or even accepted your connection request. Maybe you’re thinking about adding them to your other social networks, too. Heck, you even have sales tools that’ll do this for you. Resist those urges. People don’t respond well when someone they don’t know (or don’t know well) floods them with attention.

Respond in kind.

Let’s say someone likes a post you shared, retweets you or comments on your last status update. Doing so sets the tone for what actions they’d consider acceptable from you. That retweet doesn’t mean you should reach out immediately to schedule a demo, and a “like” doesn’t mean they’re a qualified prospect, but those are signals that you can mirror their engagement without rubbing them the wrong way.

The challenge is that each buyer is different, with their own threshold for interaction and social engagement. That’s why you should never let one bad experience demolish your social program – or one great experience over-inflate it.

But with the benefits, it’s worth figuring out what works with your team and your clients, and getting things right.

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