CHICAGO (Reuters) - Social media is great for spreading the word but sometimes its content can become the elephant in the room, quite literally.
Just ask Bob Parsons, the flamboyant founder and CEO of Web hosting site GoDaddy, who posted a video link of his elephant shoot in Zimbabwe on his Twitter account last month.
The controversial dispatch was the latest in a string of high-profile social media gaffes, highlighted recently by insensitive remarks about the Egyptian uprising by fashion designer Kenneth Cole and Japan's earthquake by comedian Gilbert Gottfried. Gottfried's behavior cost him a longstanding gig as the voice of the Aflac insurance duck.
The move by Parsons, known for provocative tactics that include Super Bowl ads with scantily-clad women, was also not without fallout. His personal blog is replete with customers threatening to pull their GoDaddy business. Meanwhile, the company lost high-profile accounts such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
"Did you miss the fact that your customer base includes people who would be disgusted by this? It was so incredibly childish, egotistic and in very poor taste, I can hardly believe it," said "Russell," a respondent on the blog.
Parsons, who has more than 30,000 Twitter followers (twitter.com/DrBobParsons), hasn't apologized. Instead, he stridently defends his actions, leading many to believe he relishes the attention.
"The video was posted on my personal video.me channel (www.bobparsons.me) and came with a warning that it was graphic," he wrote. "I posted it because I wanted people see what the people over there endure and how problem elephant are dealt with. Doing what I did is the best way I know of to help those subsistence and starving farmers."
Most small business owners, whether or not they buy Parsons' line of reasoning, will never be caught up in such a public spectacle. Even so, the wide-reaching impact of Twitter, Facebook and other online channels represents dangerous waters. Small businesses, which often rely heavily on social media for customer awareness, can't afford costly mistakes.
"My advice to small business is don't do a Parsons," said branding strategist Jonathan Salem Baskin. "Don't confuse customers' interest in knowing about the products and services they buy or could buy with an interest in you personally."
"You make no money from humiliating yourself publicly," he said. "Your customers don't care about your vacation."
Baskin is a proponent of keeping social media content - all marketing for that matter - related to the business at hand. It's fine to engage customers in a dialogue, he said, but make sure the topic pertains directly to the product or service.
"I'd like to hear from Joe's Dry Cleaners that he's getting into environmentally responsible solvents and what his customers think," he said. "Talk to your customers about what matters to them. The technology shouldn't change what you talk about and why you talk."
The lure of social media and its ability to quickly and inexpensively share with the masses are often too tempting to adhere to strict boundaries.
In response to slowing sales in late 2009, entrepreneur Sonny Ahuja, who owns Milwaukee-based retail site GrandPerfumes (www.grandperfumes.com), began hosting a regular Saturday morning Twitter show that included "dumb blonde" jokes that offended some viewers.
"I realized this was something serious, not funny," said Ahuja, who also received threatening direct messages. He still hosts "FunSat" but has sanitized content to exclude potentially controversial topics. "Jokes on marriage and relationships are the best," he said. "Nobody has ever complained."
FeeFighters (feefighters.com), a Chicago-based startup that lets companies comparison shop for the best deals in credit card processing, learned quickly that discretion goes beyond content when it comes to social media.
The fledgling operation used to contact all its site users - whether or not they ultimately contracted a service provider - by locating them on Twitter and thanking them publicly for considering the business. One user, who ran a small computer-consulting firm, didn't want his followers knowing about his use of the auction service and protested.
"He felt it was an affront to his privacy," said FeeFighters' Stella Fayman, who oversees the site's marketing efforts. "We decided we wouldn't tweet our customers until they tweeted us first." Ultimately, through an apology and subsequent dialogue, FeeFighters turned the disgruntled user into a paying customer.
Sima Dahl, a Chicago-based social media consultant, said the limits of appropriate social media content and methods vary greatly from business to business, with industry type frequently setting the tone.
"The conversation itself is an opportunity," said Dahl, adding the transparency fostered by these emerging channels should be embraced as a chance to improve operations and when feedback is negative, work hard to address problems one-on-one. "I encourage people to take thoughtful risks, engage in the conversation, be courteous, conscientious and aim to serve your customers."