The Problem Of Scale

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This or that?

Have you seen the regular editorial piece titled, Eat This, Not That, from Men’s Health magazine? It’s a quick way to not only think differently about the food choices we make, but slowly – over time – you start learning (no, educating yourself) to make better food decisions. We make calls like this in marketing on a frequent basis, the problem happens when we’re not learning from each speedy decision. Lately, I’ve been hearing a constant challenge from brands (and peers who work with brands). Several years ago, they jumped into social media and now, they’re faced with some tough decisions. While the channels are aligned with their strategy, they’re starting to feel like their ability to truly connect with consumers has become even more fragmented.

The conversation goes something like this…

"We have almost 100,000 people that like our Facebook page and about 50,000 people connected to us on Pinterest. Should we just drop doing this whole Pinterest thing and focus on Facebook?" Without question, these types of decisions need a deeper-dive. We need to look at how each platform is performing, the type of engagement, amplification and conversion that we’re getting. We need to look beyond "how many" people are connected and focus more on "who" those people are. That all being said, these questions aren’t popping up because brands are suddenly waking up to the old "quantity over quality" debate. In all of the cases, it’s a question of scale. They simply don’t have the resources and/or funding to scale and maintain the level of quality that people expect in these highly personalized social spaces, so they’re stuck in that old, "this or that?" paradigm.

The problem with social media success.

It’s become a bit of a sad joke, but the majority of brands are simply not prepared should they become successful at social media. Much in the same way we love to watch brands flame out when a social media crisis happens, the same is true for success: it’s overwhelming and hard to wrap the brand’s hands, head and heart around. It goes from awesome to awkward in the speed of hitting the refresh button on Twitter. We go from a brand speaking in a human and personal way to these awkward mass messages that attempt to speak to a larger majority, instead of one-to-one.

Scale happens.

Chris Brogan (co-author of Trust Agents with Julien Smith and author of Social Media 101 and Google + For Business) is feeling this today. There’s something up with his blog and he’s getting pinged non-stop from every angle (social media, email, etc…) from kind and well-intentioned people who are just trying to let him know that his website is having a problem. That type of help isn’t a problem for the vast majority of us, but when you have hundreds of thousands of followers, fans, readers and more, it becomes overwhelming. Chris explains in a Facebook posting that he’s well-aware and thrilled with his lot in life (who wouldn’t want lots of followers and helper-bees looking out for them?). What he does say is this: "Truth: we’re not MEANT to have thousands of friends. It’s not sustainable. Over the last many years, I’ve met tens of thousands of people. No exaggeration. Of those, I’ve done what I can to be friendly and stay somewhat aware of maybe a thousand or more. But think about that number. What can you really know when trying to connect with 1000 people?"

That’s one person. Imagine a brand that has multiple people looking at all of these different human touch-points.

You see, on one hand we do want to thank each and every person who is kind to us. On that same hand, we want to ensure that we can correct someone who feels like they have been wronged as well. In this strange arms race that brands are facing in the pursuit of likes, plus ones and followers, we’re starting to see how hard it is to authentically scale and get it right. Scott Stratten (UnMarketing and The Book Of Business Awesome – How Engaging Your Customers and Employees Can Make Your Business Thrive and The Book of Business UnAwesome – The Cost of Not Listening or Being Great At What You Do) was talking up the issue of automation on his Facebook page. He tweeted something along the lines of: automation in social media is like sending a mannequin to a networking event. He got a response from someone at Hootsuite (a social media management system for businesses and organizations) with the title of "Ambassador of Happiness" who tweeted: "Truth is, @marketing cannot fathom social media beyond his own utility, so his advice should be taken with a grain of salt."

Is automation the answer to scale?

One of the coolest online tools I have seen in recent times is IFTTT (If This Then That). It’s a site that creates a ton of interesting automation hacks to make life easier (things like taking your highlights and notes from your Amazon Kindle and automatically putting them into Evernote). With that comes some of the uglier hacks (things like automatically sending a direct message to a new follower on Twitter with a sales pitch). Scale and automation do not have to go hand in hand. See, what Chris Brogan, Scott Stratten and Hootsuite are all talking about is either using automation to overcome personalization or a scenario where you simply can’t connect with enough people, so just do what you can do (and, as Brogan so beautifully states, is bad because it lets people – who are connecting with you – down).

What now?

Let’s not confuse using technology and automation to better organize and understand who we are connected to and the types of people that they are (how they amplify, share and convert) with using automation (and bots) to replicate the power of human interactions. Those two should, probably, be mutually exclusive. What we are talking about is this strange and awkward place where brands are getting exactly what they wanted: lots of people who are engaged and want to connect. The problem is that it’s overwhelming and instead of forging ahead, they’re learning the same truth that Chris Brogan uncovered above: it’s hard to have a substantive relationship… it’s even harder to do it when you have many people on the brand side and a massive amount on the customer side. Technology automation isn’t panacea. It can help a brand get better organized, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

Now, it’s over to you: can you scale social media? Is that even a sensible sentiment?


  1. There are only two realistic approaches to managing scale (aside from automation, which is just awful in an ecosystem like the social space):
    1. Staff up. If you need more headcount to deal with the extra demand on your attention, there aren’t a lot of solutions to that. Too many phone calls? Add a few people to your call center. Too many tech support questions? Add some people to your tech support team. Too many tweets? Same thing. The channels are irrelevant. It’s a capacity thing.
    But here’s the caveat: you’re looking at the problem as being vertical. In other words, you’re looking at a brand-to-consumer communication model. Top-down and bottom-up. Okay? Visualize that. Sketch it real quick.
    Now think about how social networks and communities work. How information spreads. Most of the volume of information is lateral, not vertical. Think of vertical comms as traditional media. There’s nothing inherently social about it. Right? You’re looking at traditional comms using social channels in addition to traditional channels, but the model is the same. Now…
    2. Leverage your community to build scale. Your community is layered. Most of the people who follow you (customers or not) are passively involved with your products and brands. They’re observers or occasional question-askers. But at the top of that ecosystem is a small nucleus of super-engaged people who happen to be experts in the use of your products. You can usually spot them in discussions, on forums, etc. They’re already answering questions and dispensing advice. Reach out to them.
    Remember what Brains on Fire did with Fiskars? They created a team of citizen evangelists who were essentially these types of community members. They trained them, supported them, and gave them the tools (and permission) to build capacity for them within the community.
    Think of this as lateral impact. That’s how you build scale in social: by building scale inside the community rather than inside the company. And yes, you can build on that lateral mechanism over time.
    It’s not the kind of methodology that most executives are trained to think of, but that’s the solution to a big part of the scale problem in social.

  2. Nice one Mitch.
    I like Scott (and Chris) a lot. Both have been far too kind to me over the years.
    But I disagree with Scott about automation. It’s not inherently evil. It perhaps increases opportunity for misuse, but it isn’t in and of itself bad. Is voice mail evil? It’s automation. Are email autoresponders evil? Not always.
    It’s about how you use the tools, not the presence of the tools. Guns don’t kill people, bullets kill people. etc. etc.
    As to Chris’ point about inability to scale relationships, and your core premise, I have a different issue. Where is it written that social media MUST scale? Or if it does have to scale, why does it have to scale with the exact same economic efficiency as what it is replacing.
    Let’s think of Chris as a company. Could he scale social? Of course he could, by creating his own army of “Ambassadors of Happiness” that connect with people on his behalf. Is it the same as being connected with by Chris himself? No, but it’s a decent half-measure. Why doesn’t Chris do this? First, he probably feels it’s inauthentic. But that doesn’t make it impossible. He is making a CHOICE to not scale. Second, he probably feels it would be unnecessarily expensive. But that doesn’t make it impossible. He is again making a CHOICE not to scale.
    If brands want social to scale, add more human beings so that it does. That may not be as efficient as phone or email or smoke signal or direct mail or whatever, but it is indeed possible.
    (incidentally, this is one of the reasons Amber and I banged the drum so hard in our book about social being a skill, not a job. decentralizing social in the organization makes it a lot easier to scale)
    Nobody ever promised that social media would be both transformative AND operate under the exact same profit/loss scenario.
    Social CAN scale, we’re just too cheap in most cases to do it.

  3. Dead-on about Fiskars and having customers/advocates help themselves. Get Satisfaction is a great model for that, and doesn’t get as much love as they should for it, IMHO. Also, a new example: that company that recruits customers to help provide support via live chat? I love that premise.

  4. I agree a ton with what Jay and Olivier are saying above. A few years back I was working with best Buy trying to help them in the social space and this problem came up a lot. In fact in this post by R. Scoble it was well highlighted. At the time people from Best Buy were VERY upset with him but I was not. I agreed with him. Yes, you can humanize the web, shit there are people behind the keyboards. This post wasn’t some stupid repost of some automated crap. For fear of reiterating what everyone else has said you must staff up and be able to defend the investment like any other line item on a balance sheet.

  5. Mitch, I think this is exactly what I had been thinking of when I read Chris’ post last evening. It makes you feel for a guy who genuinely wants to place his best foot forward when discussing all of the principles that make us as Social Communications Professionals tick. We want to show our clients, prospects, and peers that we practice what we’re preaching. Brogan is a very popular figure around these parts, obviously, and people want to share in his findings and interpretation.
    His experience is almost that of a radio host that is dealing with listeners that call into the program asking about a topic that every other caller has wanted to discuss. The host is always willing to discuss the hot topics of the day, but after 23 calls of the same thing, he just wants to hear something different from those that he is expecting to have been paying attention.
    When I was in Orlando last November I had the opportunity to sit in the Social Department at a major entertainment company. It was only composed of 2 girls. I began to ask questions about how they engage and respond to their fans and they flat out said they didn’t. I was shocked, because I saw how advantageous it could be for the company. But as it’s mentioned above, they knew it was truly not sustainable and would create potential issues for how they would be to react each and every fan. It’s a shame and I hope that the collective minds we have are able to go ahead and try shifting our energies into attempting to solve this monster we’ve created for brands.
    Thanks for all your work, Mitch.

  6. Fantastic question – and one that all brands will be facing soon.
    Let me adjust the question slightly, though.
    It’s not CAN you scale social – it’s WILL you?
    Olivier makes a great point, comparing social response to any other form of customer care that comes into a company.
    If the customer is always right, companies must meet them where they are.
    However, the company needs to understand the value of relationship in customer acquisition and retention in order to justify the funds.
    The big brands won’t have a problem with this. But it’s the small businesses, suddenly surrounded by thousands of fans/followers/likers that are going to struggle to adjust.
    One relevant analogy is the TV era. What started as live, authentic programming gave way to slickly-produced programs. Perhaps the era of social media marketing is taking that turn as we speak…

  7. Scaling social is, as you guys have already said, a function of manpower + automation. PRACTICE, in the context of the scaling company’s objectives, is a whole ‘nuther story, and very easy to screw up.
    But scaling absolutely IS about manpower + automation which comes out to some cost number. Companies and agencies who are able to strike a market-appropriate balance between lowet-possible-cost and best-in-class execution will solve this dilemma.
    For an agency like mine, that means not biting off more than we can chew. πŸ˜‰

  8. I agree – within reason. Where I was going with this blog post is brands that may not have the same level of ongoing interest. Think about the big boxes. They’re chasing likes, friends, followers and the engagement is really in the minutia. I don’t think they have anything close to what we would call a community. It’s more like another touchpoint for communications than anything else.
    To your point, scaling up with people is not always easy and seamless. I hope they can figure this out, because what we’re seeing right now isn’t scale… it’s mass broadcasting through social channels.

  9. Spot on. I think the point is that brands are doing social media to scale their marketing and advertising and not realizing that they have to have those ambassadors scale as well (whether they are employees or fans willing to help out).
    I’m also not sure if Chris’ issue could be solved by ambassadors. His point is that we all have so much noise (because of the mass amount of people that we all follow) that we simply don’t see much of anything, when it gets down the details. It’s a point well-worth meditating on, because I know how he feels.

  10. I agree, Keith. I think the problem is that brands are never (or rarely) prepared for success. They want a million followers, but they don’t do the parts you’re talking about in the strategic planning to ensure that when they hit that number, that they can be successful. Then it becomes the came of “this or that?”

  11. We forget how powerful the flowgates can be when opened. It’s a challenge for brands. Many marketers think that they want hundreds of thousands of followers, but those same marketers don’t really plan for it.

  12. I think it’s still VERY hard to scale. Finding the right people and making them connect with high growth is never easy. If it were only as easy as just hiring people. There’s that old saying about throwing bodies at a problem…

  13. good conversation
    I think scale is a bad word.
    So here’s what I think…
    I think business is a kind of amplification of processes we see naturally occurring in nature.. The term scale evokes for me.. a kind of industrial or digital conceptual framework for thinking about business and management issues and whatever…. and what I’m thinking is maybe we should look to other conceptual frameworks / schema systems.. like looking at ecosystems… or how social groups work in nature… social biology… psychology.. social psychology… etc.
    In part I think this because I’ve always seen social like a kind of pendulum shift from industrialization.. so it’s like.. if we have a kind of newtonian based presumptions to business management.. as a pose to looking at say… quantum mechanics…
    Well I think this is the whole root of the problem…

  14. Bloody brilliant comments here. Mass is an issue, brands going for quantity and vanity numbers b/c it’s quicker, easier than quality. Scaling those big numbers into something meaningful, targeted isn’t. Building on what Jay and Olivier said about scaling by empowering your community and decentralizing it within the company – not only are they too cheap, brands are also just to chicken to do it. Brands would rather have just a couple people (per Jon’s comment) doing social – tightly “controlled,” no resources to engage – than trust others.
    Think it was Neal Schaffer who told me once that you can automate process, but not really engagement. I wish I could find more IFTTT recipes I’d leave on autopilot, but there are so few things I’d always do the same way. It’s certainly different for larger brands, some strategic automation can help with scale – provided there are still plenty of humans calling the shots, deciding which tools to use, what they can really ‘set and forget’ and keeping eye on it all the time to reset, recalibrate as needed. FWIW.

  15. Really fascinating conversation.
    I wanted to link it with this post by John Hagel earlier this week ( What John says is that, in the industrial economy (push economy) what you look for is scalable efficiency. Automation objective is just that. He also argues that, with the arrival of digital technologies and the enhanced relationships that they allow, automation leads to scalable inefficiency (because people are looking for relationships or at least, meaning, and you can’t automate that).
    The new organization, he goes on, must focus on scalable learning. I think that is what some brands have done by empowering their communities to take charge of conversations and relationships.
    When you build and develop your communities (internally and externally) you are actually scaling learning. The question that remains is “what do you need marketing for, if you have communities?” or “wasn’t marketing a way to avoid conversations in the first place?”

  16. I think the answer here is wrapped in the ROI riddle that plagues social media. If corporations wanted to scale social media (as Jay say stated above) they could. They just put more heads on it. But the Finance department doesn’t put heads on things unless they can prove the return.
    The more interesting question for me is whether Chris Brogan can [authentically] scale? I don’t think so. However, I think this is ok. No one expects Chris to “pick up the phone” all the time. In fact, if I tweeted him I would be flabergasted if he answered. I think Chris should take a page out of Seth Godin’s book of engagement. He doesn’t make himself available everywhere, but if you email him, he will answer.
    Perhaps corporations need to operate this way as well. Choose a channel, develop a strong presence there and spend the resources to measure the ROI of that channel. In the scenario Mitch described, my guess is that the corporation is spread thin with no knowledge of what is working and what is not.
    Nice, thought provoking post Mitch! Thanks for writing it!

  17. Hi All,
    DaveO from HootSuite here with a few notes about the various topics which popped up in the post and comments:
    1) Scaling community – we manage over 50 social profiles for HootSuite including dozens of international focused accounts and others for various teams, departments and market segments. We do all of this with humans and have scaled a program which includes task forces of employees and interns at HQ and in the field. At this point, we have 40-ish Ambassadors under contract all over the globe who host HootUps and help build community around the world including using various company profiles for outreach – with our limited access tool and scheduling, we are able to ensure quality AND deliver messages at optimal times for global markets.
    This is a constantly evolving process, but as i type, i see community builders from 6+ countries in my office. We outreach to each country uniquely and delicately. How do we do this? Just ask, i’ll share all my king-fu (i also told many of these stories at my SXSW2012 “Tom Sawyer” talk).
    2) Automation and alternative uses of social channels – Not all automation is mannequin like. We see all sorts of interesting use cases of RSS feeds and scheduled updates and auto-posting which are useful and authentic uses of social. Scheduling is not to be confused with not engaging, and not all social media use is to represent personal updates and opinions.
    Along with broadcasting messaging to audiences at the time they want to receive them, examples of useful scheduling and automation include: @WW2Tweets which schedules an seemingly endless flow of events to coincide with actual historical timelines; emergency response messages for natural disasters where events trigger updates; weather and snow reports and scientific data collection. Further, I encourage folks to pre-schedule posts during an event while you are spending time talking to others rather than fumbling with your phone.
    3) Mitch shared a bit of exchange between Scott Stratten and my colleague who shared an opinion about Scott’s dogmatic view of scheduling and automation. While both Scott and Chris seemed to poke each other a wee bit much (and have since made friendly), this got me thinking, “When is an employee a person?” My colleague in question was using Twitter before he worked at HootSuite and of course we want employees to be present in the social-world to learn how our customers use social media in general and HootSuite specifically, but we also don’t want to antagonize others.
    Because Scott’s company is himself, his opinion is his company’s. Easy. Our employees have bit of a conundrum – do they make a “personal only” profile to share thoughts at the risk of looking like astro-turfing? Or do they simply make their social streams sanitized party-line messaging? Neither appeal to me. Now politeness goes a long way in my book and the shortness of the form removes space for nuance and personality and like all of you, i’ve found folks in real life very different from their on-line personas. Sure people put the rather useless quasi-disclaimer of “my thoughts are my own…” but to me that’s a redundant waste of bio space.
    To Mitch, thanks for the convo – may we send you HootSuite treats? If yes, ping us @HootClub. Scott, if you are reading, you can always ping me about your concerns about our crews’ manner of acting. We’re friendly – in fact the employee in question is most fun happy dude you’d care to meet despite his note coming off as brusque.
    Let’s keep pushing the boundaries of what these remarkable tools can do with openness and practical-ness!

  18. Hey there Dave,
    I saw the exchange, and applauded Chris for offering up his opinion. We get too wrapped up in kumbaya, “we can’t say this about so-and-so” mindsets in social media, that it makes a pleasant change to see a real person opine. Besides, most people are smart enough to know employees don’t speak on behalf of their employers. I also thought Chris handled being called a prick by Stratten well, too.
    It reminded me of O2’s response to some idiots on their streams, and how they won fans because they didn’t back down to bullying:
    Here’s to more like Chris, and thanks to Hootsuite for not over-reacting and punishing him.

  19. Automation is not social, however it is also not necessarily anti-social.
    Smart automation that fulfills a user’s need for help or info and does so more quickly and effectively than a human could have done is a very social thing. It’s one of the most pleasing and thoughtful things brands or product makers can do for their users. But it’s critical that businesses not pretend they’re being social (casting automated outreach as personalized) when in fact they’re being efficient and helpful.
    As Jay suggests, there no reason that a brand should connect human to human with every customer that would engage that way–there’s a sweet spot for that and it’s a business decision.
    Brands just need to set and fulfill the reasonable expectations of their customers.

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