Unsocial media.

The social media convoy meets a few potholes in the road.

Every thirty seconds or during the morning, our cell phones buzz with a new message--a tweet from a news source, a Facebook update from a client, a text message from someone else.

By midmorning, social media triage is in play, and only messages regarding business, the day's activities, and The Onion headlines are read, because it's impossible to keep up with everything else.

Apparently, we're not alone.

Granted, while not power social media users, we do keep up with a broader spectrum of sources than many people, as part of our fascination with this communications tool. But as social media grows, it's starting to inherit some of the same dilemmas as more traditional media, including message overload, spammer abuse, and user fatigue.

Twitter's user dropout rate from month to month hovers near 60%, according to Nielsen, bringing its long-term growth into question. (Facebook and MySpace have around 25-30% dropouts.) Hacker and spam attacks on Facebook are expected to more than double in 2009, and the network is scrambling with new privacy tools to counter this. User complaints about “social network marketers” hitting them with blatant product or service pitches are also on the rise.

And some marketing firms are now being outed for faking user reviews of products on behalf of their clients.

All this complicates the use of social media for marketers. Our analyses of social media advertising indicate that it doesn’t yet to the job. We strongly advocate the use of social media tools for news and relationship building. However, we think it’s more important than ever for marketers to be diligent about how they use social media. Here are the musts:

1. It’s about relationships.

This is first and foremost. People must connect with you or your brand in some way. For enthusiast-type products, this is easier than for goods or services that don’t create an emotional attachment.

One of the most surprisingly effective social networking efforts belongs to the people whose product name epitomizes bad internet practice: Spam. Visit the Hormel website for Spam, and you’ll find recipes, games, history and a carefully organized and thorough information source for the canned meat. Visit the brand’s Facebook page, and you’ll see consumer testimonial after testimonial celebrating the concoction of pork shoulder and ham.

Spam has more than 17,000 Facebook fans.

2. It’s about news.

We’ve seen numerous successes where marketers report on an event (or sometimes create one) that involves their brand. In this context, they get acceptance, because the news is valuable to the reader. News (or quality content) also gets you acceptance for an occasional promotional message (don't overdo it though).

3. There are strict rules.

A social network is its own society. There are rules of decorum. Break the rules and there can be serious consequences. For example, numerous bloggers (including Ad Age) recently crucified a PR agency because a staff member sent a blanket e-mail promoting a client product to a list of journalists, copying the addresses into the cc field of the e-mail rather than the bcc field. Every addressee could see everyone else on the list, and replies came back to the entire list of reporters. Before the end of the day, many were calling for the agency to be shut down. That seems a little extreme, but make a mistake in an instant message world, and everyone knows about it quickly.

Much more egregious is the video game pr firm that was caught promoting to a prospective client that it has banks of interns who cover the web giving new client games favorable reviews as independent consumers—sometimes before they could have actually gone out and purchased the games in stores. Again, there have been calls for this shop to be shut down, in this case, with cause.

4. If you break a rule, don’t rationalize, apologize.

If fellow networkers think you’re trying to make an excuse, you get raked over the coals again and you call more attention to your gaffe through a new round of blog and status posts. Apologize, explain the measures you’ve taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and provide the content that rebuilds your credibility.

5. Expect more clutter. Which demands more diligence on your part.

The buzz about social networking for marketers is that it’s fast, easy, and cheap. It may turn out not to be any of these, but with everyone jumping on, expect social networkers to become less and less tolerant of blatant sales pitches and more wary even of the marketers who are approaching the medium properly.

To learn more about how to avoid the social media holes in the road, click here.