How to painlessly import contacts in Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social sites

It happens to every company and / or professional which wants to promote their products and services on social networks: they are asked to permit the social network to access a contact list in order to find contacts which are already on the social network and to invite others to join them on the social network. A find contacts feature can be an excellent opportunity to quickly grow presence and influence on a social network, but it is also a process that contains many potential pitfalls. The sections that follow consider some of the most important traps and look at how the use of a temporary webmail mailbox can help in avoiding many problems.

How social networks match contacts

In social networks, users are asked to specify a primary email address, which sometimes becomes the user name to access the service (a bad idea because people change emails from time to time, but this is a topic for another time). In many sites there is also the possibility to specify alternate email addresses, which may or may not be viewable by friends. Each of the addresses specified is used as a key to match with imported contacts from external address books. To be more “findable” on social networks, the recommendation is to specify all possible email addresses in a profile, even old abandoned addresses. Note that there are at least two drawbacks: “private” email addresses may become visible to friends (immediately or in future, deliberately or due to a system error). Will the social network site be able to protect our data or is there a risk of data “loss”? Also note that the exact process to be found on a social network may vary slightly from one social network to another.

Importing address book contacts into Facebook, twitter et al.

A social network generally allows a user the possibility to compare their contacts with its database of members in order to find friends who are already in the network. Usually it is possible to import a contact list, namely a data file exported from a mail client like Outlook, from Gmail or from an enterprise system (CRM/ERP). It is also often possibile to provide direct access to a web mail address book like Gmail, Yahoo, Microsoft Live Hotmail or similar.

The risks of sharing contacts data

Sounds good, right? Maybe not. Once contact data is loaded into the social web, it is potentially subject to various risks:

  • The social network (or associated third party application) may send an email in our name to our email contacts, even without our knowledge nor explicit consent. A classic case is to send an invitation to join their dear friend on the social network. The social networks like this as it helps grow their member base. Unfortunately, these emails may be perceived as a nuisance by the recipients, an even more problematic point if they are sent without explicit consent. There is also the cardinal rule of email marketing to consider: has the recipient previously given consent to receive this type of message? In Europe, EU privacy laws apply. In the U.S. there is no real privacy law (the weak anti-spam law doesn’t count), but it is still important to respect the tenets of permission marketing as set out by Seth Godin.
  • Sharing an address book potentially allows access to all personal or a least sensitive data, such as notes and phone numbers, for each contact in a contacts list or address book. That is not really a good idea.
  • The data from the address book may fall into the hands of criminals if, unfortunately, there were to be a data theft or if the social network decided to sell the data at a later time. There is also no guarantee that the conditions of use will be respected if the company enters bankruptcy / administration.

Share the least amount of data necessary

One approach to minimizing risk is to share just one minimal data element with social networks, the email address. To find other network members nothing else is generally needed. Limiting the number of data fields shared avoids theft or misuse of other unnecessary data elements such as appointments, phone numbers, postal addresses etc. The suggested approach is to create a CSV, comma separated values, format text file that contains only one column, email:

the file to import into social networks Figure 1: The file to import in to social networks

Note that the first line contains the field header or data name, Email. Some social networks may require a slightly different name. In addition, all data ends with a comma, a requirement of the csv data interchange format. If you can not export just a single column, you can use a spreadsheet as LibreOffice (formerly OpenOffice) Calc or MS Excel, to remove the unnecessary columns. Just open the file in the spreadsheet, delete the unneeded columns and save the file, maintaining the csv text format. The latest versions of LibreOffice Calc and MS Excel are limited to 1,048,576 lines of data – this should more than suffice for most users!

Leading social networks and their contact import support

Social NetworkImport from email and / or chatImport from a fileNotes
FacebookWindows Live Hotmail, Skype, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, AIM, Yahoo, Free,, Other E-Mail ServiceYesThe name of the email field should be “Email Addresses
TwitterGmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, AOL, LinkedIn .NoGoogle Friend Finder
LinkedInAlmost all (pdf list)YesAddresses can be specified one by one as well
BuzzGmailYes (gmail contacts)
YouTubeGmail, Facebook (only Facebook users who are connected to YouTube)No

How to import contacts in practice: an example with Twitter and Yahoo

Twitter is one of the social networks that facilitates the search for contacts already using twitter by permitting access to a web mail address book. Unfortunately it is not currently possible to directly upload a file of addresses. It is possible to manually specify email addresses, but this isn’t too practical for a long list.

Twitter recognizes addresses in Gmail, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and LinkedIn Figure 2: Twitter recognizes addresses stored in Gmail, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and LinkedIn

The suggested solution is to create a temporary email account using one of the supported services, importing just the email addresses prepared previously. At the end of the process, the new address book can be emptied and, if appropriate, the temporary email account can be deleted. The process may seem a bit difficult, but it really isn’t too too bad in the end. To better illustrate the steps involved, consider twitter as an example, using as Yahoo!’s mail service as an intermediary. Even users with address books already in Yahoo! (or Gmail, Hotmail or AOL for that matter) should consider creating a temporary account which contains just email address rather than giving Twitter or any other social network site access to an entire address book.

Select “Mail” from the home page

Choose "Mail" from the Yahoo! home page Figure 3: Choose “Mail” from the Yahoo! home page

Choose “Create New Account”

Choose "Create New Account" and avoid Facebook and Google distractions! Figure 4: Choose “Create New Account” and avoid Facebook and Google distractions!

Fill in the sign-up form

Fill out this form to create the email account Figure 5: Fill out this form to create your email account.

In filling in the data, the choice of account name is not important nor is the quality of data entered for that matter.

Select import from the address book menu

After creating the email account, the address book must be populated. From the Address book | Tools menu choose “Import”.

Choose the import option Figure 6: Select the import option

Specify the file to import

Specify the file to upload and accept the terms of use Figure 7: Specify the file to upload and accept the terms of service

Check the imported contacts

Check that the number of contacts imported is correct Figure 8: Check that the number of contacts imported is correct

Return to Twitter and select “Yahoo!”

Return to Twitter & choose the option 'Yahoo!' Figure 9: Return to Twitter and click on “Yahoo!”

Grant Twitter access to Yahoo!

Screen appears to provide Twitter access to Yahoo Figure 10: screens appear to provide Twitter access to the Yahoo account

Twitter friends to follow!

The match results: contacts on Twitter and the ability to send invitations to others Figure 11: The matching results: contacts already on Twitter and the option to send invitations to the others

Some final considerations

Internet companies are very dynamic – otherwise they die quickly. The exact steps to follow for each social network and web mail can vary slightly, but the basic concepts remain the same.

Terms of Use

It may be worth checking with corporate counsel before proceeding, given the complexity of the conditions of use in force, to determine that a specific usage is therein compatible and that there are no conflicts with privacy consent given at the time of email address collection.

Social network dynamics

"SKYguidaTV is now following your updates on Twitter." Spam on Twitter: Twam? Spitter? It should be noted that the dynamics of the social world on the web are as complex as people are. Solid social relations are built on trust and transparency. If a company has reputation issues, its moves on the web can and will be questioned.

A future solution: portable contacts

A promising project to allow a managed exchange of contacts, portable contacts, was launched in 2008. It is built on the OpenSocial REST Protocol and there is already support, at least in part, by some big players such as Plaxo, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!.

Want to know more? Consider our Twitter Course! We also have a Facebook Course (description in Italian).

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About Sean Carlos

Sean Carlos is a digital marketing consultant & teacher, assisting companies with their Search (SEO + SEA = SEM), Social Media & Digital Media Analytics strategies. Sean first worked with text indexing in 1990 in a project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since then he worked for Hewlett-Packard Consulting and later as IT Manager of a real estate website before founding Antezeta in 2006. Sean is an official instructor of the Digital Analytics Association and collaborates with the Bocconi University. He is Chairman of the SMX Search and Social Media Conference, 12 & 13 November in Milan. He is also a co-author of the Treccani encyclopedic dictionary of computer science, ICT & digital media. Born in Providence, RI, USA, Sean received Honors in Physics from Bates College, Maine. He speaks English, Italian and German.

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