Competitors and social media: Do you share or block?

I’m increasingly interested in the communication that occurs between competitors.

We live in an age of mass public communication, with most businesses doing everything they can to be heard loudly and frequently. It’s common business practice to monitor competitors’ activities and keep track of their public communication.

But how does that apply in the context of social media – which could be seen as an odd combination of public communication conducted as intimate conversation between friends?

Is it OK to monitor your competitors’ social media? Is it OK if that monitoring is covert? Is it more honest if the monitoring is overt? Is it appropriate to be a participant in your competitors’ social media presence – perhaps by commenting on, sharing, or liking their posts? Is it fair to block your competitors from seeing your social media? And what rationale underpins each choice?

I expect that the answers to these questions will vary by industry. And maybe the answers also depend on what you’re trying to achieve with your social media (and with your business more broadly).

Perhaps if your social media is focused on building interest in a field of work or in advancing a profession, then widespread sharing with colleague-competitors makes sense. If the purpose of your social media is to present an image of yourself as a success or as someone who belongs, then sharing makes sense. If your social media is about setting or monitoring trends, then sharing makes sense. But if your social media is focused around building your brand and claiming customers, then maybe you don’t want to share.

It’s possible that these questions are also influenced by how you see the customer ‘pie’. If you see a flexible ‘pie’ and if, by sharing, we can all get better at what we do and all claim bigger pieces of ‘pie’, then sharing makes sense. But if you see customer competition as a zero-sum game … if my customer means a loss to you and your customer means a loss to me because there is a fixed pool of customers … then it makes no sense to get social with competitors.

For me, life is rarely a zero-sum game, and business never seems to be. I believe that it’s usually possible to generate new ideas and create business growth by sharing.

It’s in this spirit that I like to monitor the social media activities of some of my competitors. I do this publicly, under the name of my business. I look at what they’re doing, learn from their ideas, think about what’s relevant to me, and generally try to understand trends. If I like their work, then I don’t hesitate to make that liking public – with my name attached to a comment or a relevant share. For me, this activity is about one local business appreciating and liking the work of another local business, because even though we’re in competition, we can work together to jointly grow.

I also believe that social media posts are, by their nature, public. It doesn’t make sense to put anything on social media that you’re not happy for the entire world to see … whether competitor or not. In the social media space, I’m not sure that I understand any desire to keep some content hidden from some people.

So I was taken by surprise recently to discover that my business and I have been blocked on Instagram by a local competitor. Maybe I’m missing something about the way that social media works. But it feels to me as though blocking is not quite playing fair.