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Social Selling: When Does Research Go Too Far?

If you’re reading this breathing, you’ve heard of social selling. It’s the topic of endless blog articles, LinkedIn group discussions, and heated professional debates. The exact definition is different depending on which “guru” you follow. It floats around somewhere between (1) researching a lead before reaching out to them and (2) using social media channels (LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) to actually contact prospects.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll explore the former.

Social media has allowed unprecedented insight into the mind of a prospect. We can tell from their public profiles everything from where they attended school, to what yesterday’s dinner looked like. With all of this public information, the question becomes, “How much is too much knowledge about a prospect?” How much can we reasonably know before we become…creepy?

It’s a fine line, and it depends on a few factors including your personal sales style, the prospect’s comfort level with you (rapport), and what a prospect expects you to know about them. Let’s explore those in more detail to figure out the difference between social selling and cyber stalking:

1. Style

If you’re an extreme professional with a very closed-off, business-only communication style, you probably don’t need to know your prospect’s favorite sports team. It would be unnatural for you to bring up sports in conversation, so don’t. However, you could be relaxed with a get-to-know-you style, which would lend itself more to a discussion of last night’s game.

Most salespeople know their personal style. If you don’t, talk to your office mate. He or she will be able to tell you if you’re a buttoned up professional or a “fun first, business later” type.

2. Rapport

Spouting off a bunch of intimate details about someone’s life can immediately ruin any possibility of a relationship, let alone a sale. However, if you’ve had a solid introduction (we call it a “case open”) and they seem genuinely interested in speaking with you, don’t be afraid to drop a reference to their favorite band, a sport they’re involved with, or a charity they care about.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: think about things from your prospect’s point of view. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable with someone else knowing something about you, don’t use it with them. Reassess the situation as your relationship with your potential client progresses.

3. Expectations

I call on directors, vice presidents, and C-level executives every day. Typically they expect me to know what their company does and how my company can help them. Beyond this, however, some people expect me to understand their role within their company before we ever speak.

Fortunately most of this information is on LinkedIn. The best profiles include the person’s title, and relevant information about their role in the company. For example, a vice president of sales might include details on her profile like, “Run weekly reports to track current pipeline of all reps.” In this case, I understand that she is heavily involved in tracking key metrics for individual reps. It’s my job to know this kind of information and not waste her time asking stupid questions I could have answered myself.


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Here are some guidelines that apply to nearly every sales situation:

  • Just because you know something about the prospect, doesn’t mean you need to share it with them.
    If you saw on their Facebook feed that they recently got engaged, it’s probably a little too personal to mention in an opening conversation. And it’s usually not a good idea to mention that you’ve seen their Instagram feed – that’s too far.

  • You don’t need to follow them on Twitter, add them on Facebook, and request a connection with them on LinkedIn.
    Well, not at first. As a general rule, people don’t respond well to a flood of social media requests from people they don’t know. If this doesn’t make sense, replace the term “social” with “personal.” It’s personal media. Media they share with people they care about, or at least people they know. Don’t try to connect digitally before you connect in real life.

  • The way people act online is not always how they act in a professional setting (it’s usually not).
    If you’re reading a potential customer’s tweets, you may have a certain understanding of their communication style. But don’t be surprised if you call them up and they’re not as funny, open, or friendly as you thought they would be. Everyone’s different online.

*Spoiler Alert* In Parks and Recreation, a favorite show of mine, Leslie Knope’s boyfriend, Ben, meets Leslie’s mother. The first encounter goes poorly. Ben then studies up on his potential mother-in-law and marches back into her office and uses quotes from her favorite authors to gain the upper hand in the conversation. While our goal isn’t to defeat our prospect, we can win them over with a more tailored, personal approach.

I’d love to hear what you think about this topic. If someone knew personal information about you, would it say, “Hey this cat’s done his research” or “I’d better update my privacy settings”? Comment here or email me at!

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