Does Your Social-Media Strategy Involve Wasting Time on Idiots Like Me?

Or, What's the ROI of Engaging with Needy Cranks?

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One thing you should know about me is that I was plenty annoying and needy even before the Age of Social Media.

Case in point: A long time ago -- roughly a decade ago -- I was sharing some Popsicles with some friends. Popsicles, of course, famously have jokey riddles printed on their sticks. They're the kind of thing that would make a fourth-grader laugh -- which makes them all the more funny to me as a grownup. Stuff like, Q: What happened when the cat swallowed a ball of yarn? A: It had mittens.

Credit: Kelsey Dake

Eating Popsicles with my friends that one time, I got this Popsicle-stick joke: Q: What's the best time to go to the dentist? A: Tooth-thirty. I expressed fake outrage to my friends, because the answer should, obviously, be Tooth-hurty. "Write a strongly worded letter to Popsicle," one of my friends said. So I did.

I suppose I could have called the toll-free number on the box, but writing to the company seemed like it'd be more fun. I dashed off a formal missive, identifying myself as a loyal, lifelong customer who expected better of Popsicle. I expressed disappointment that I'd been served a defective joke -- a lame joke that wasn't fully lame. My letter was a bit rambling, but not too unhinged. I swear.

I dropped my letter in the mail and waited. And waited. And waited. (I guess I thought I'd get an apologetic form letter -- that I would cherish -- and maybe a coupon for a free box of Popsicles.)

I'm still waiting. To this day, every time I eat a Popsicle, I think of how someone at Popsicle HQ probably read my letter and thought, Yeah, I'm not paid enough to write back to idiots like this.

Please note, though, that I just said "every time I eat a Popsicle" -- because God knows I sure haven't stopped eating Popsicles because the brand failed to "engage" with me.

I've been thinking of Tooth-thirtygate again lately because of Twitter. I happened to check Twitter's Trending Topics chart on a recent Friday and saw that a jokey hashtag trend, #WhyIDidntTextYouBack, was in the top 10. Hashtag trends like this are, of course, the Twitter community's homegrown, DIY version of Popsicle-stick jokes -- a time-wasting amusement designed to elicit a groan and maybe a suppressed laugh. I clicked on #WhyIDidntTextYouBack to see what kind of bad comedy people were coming up with, and the first tweet I saw came from @IHOP, the official Twitter account of the International House of Pancakes:

@IHOP: #WhyIDidntTextYouBack I was busy eating pancakes.

I couldn't resist tweeting back:

@simondumenco: @IHOP That's no excuse. You can eat pancakes any time you want! It's clear you really don't care about me.

Within a few minutes, to my surprise, @IHOP wrote back, which led to a slow-motion exchange over roughly the next half hour:

@IHOP: @simondumenco Don't say that, Simon! You know that we care about you, don't be silly!

@simondumenco: @IHOP Well, then put down the fork and let's talk.

@IHOP: @simondumenco Forks down. What would you like to chat about? :)

@simondumenco: @IHOP I just need to feel like this relationship is going somewhere.

@IHOP: @simondumenco Let's take it one pancake at a time. ;)

@simondumenco: @IHOP I stopped seeing @WaffleHouse because I thought you were serious about us. And now you want to take it one pancake at a time?

@IHOP: @simondumenco No need to rush things, the right breakfast companion is worth the wait.

@simondumenco: @IHOP Wow, did I just get friendzoned by IHOP?

@IHOP: @simondumenco We need a little time, we just got out of a relationship with French toast.

I left it at that because I know for a fact that IHOP continues to be in a relationship with French toast. IHOP lied to me! OK, sure, IHOP was just trying to let me down gently, but still.

All of this -- my IHOP exchange, my Popsicle flashback -- makes me think about what it means for a brand to be "responsive" to consumers. Pre-social media, you had to be really frustrated with a brand to want to summon the energy to make a call or write a letter or email.

Now, Twitter in particular makes interacting with brands effortless and frictionless -- and entirely public. Anybody can fire off a bitchy tweet to a brand in a matter of seconds.

On the one hand, it's kind of charming that the person who manages the @IHOP account decided to "engage" a consumer -- me -- in a wry back-and-forth.

On the other hand, probably 99% of people are never inclined to interact with brands -- via social media or otherwise. And of the 1% who are, a good chunk are pretty obviously idiots with too much time on their hands. Which brings me to my own riddle:

Q: What's the ROI of engaging with cranks and mischief-makers in social media?

A: You know what? Write your own answer to that question, people. Can't you see I'm busy here?!

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.