When It Comes To Online Social Networks, Maybe We Have It All Wrong

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How many friends do you have? How many people are following you? How many people subscribe to your Blog? What about your Podcast?

There has been plenty of talk recently in both online and traditional print publications about "online social networking fatigue." On top of that, adotas recently reported in the news item, Social Network Churn, that people loose half of their "friends" in online social networks every seven years.

Some friend you turned out to be.

Maybe we have it all wrong (and I’m just as guilty as the next person). Why are we looking at how many people have joined Facebook overall? Why do we care about how many people are following us on Twitter? There are countless online discussions about the quantity over the quality of these platforms, and we all know that it’s not realistic to have one person try to engage in any sort of meaningful way with 312,000 of their closest "friends."

Those metrics are what media companies use to buy traditional advertising.

And, we’re all falling into the trap. The minute we take the traditional media models and apply them to any of these new digital platforms could well be the minute we see "fatigue" and "churn" set in and kill them. When was the last time a real friend (or valuable connection) called you up to say, "listen, I’m sorry it’s not you, it’s me… I’m just tired of being connected to you. So, instead of that I’m going to try to connect with someone else"? Granted, this happens in deeply personal relationships everyday, but we know that the main reason this happens is because one or both parties simply begun to loose interest. Marketers never want this to happen. If you’re marketing a product and service and people start "breaking up" with you, something is terribly wrong.

Let’s push beyond the traditional metrics.

We have plenty of people talking about engagement, attention, intention and time spent. All very interesting metrics, and all of them make most traditional media folks roll their eyes. They want something more. Something more scientific. And, that’s the paradox. Five people that are very connected and engaged in one online community could well be a million times more valuable than the thousands of people who blipped through a TV spot with their PVR, but as along as traditional media can keep the major brands focused on eyeballs versus overall value, nothing will change.

Both parties screaming at one another won’t help push things forward either.

It would be interesting to create a study group on the future of media with traditional media buyers and planners along with some of the people who are really seeing value in building relationships in the digital channels. If we can get those groups in a room and throw some senior brand marketers into the mix, something tells me we would see some great results, thoughts and action plans on how to move forward. The trick is to ensure that everyone can earn the money they need to keep growing their business.

It’s no small feat. Anyone up for this kind of challenge and conversation?


  1. Mitch,
    It’s certainly a sad place when everyone’s focusing on how many of this and how many of that they have… without considering the value of that mass.
    It’s refreshing to hear you say this.
    While many marketers are focused on metrics…it seems more often than not that the focus is on the wrong kind of metrics. Traffic, ‘friends’, and ‘connections’ are nothing more than numbers unless we make them into something more.
    There’s definitely too much chatter going on and not enough valuable and meaningful conversations coming out of it all.
    We’re in the middle of making changes to the approach of one of our sites so that people become more engaged. We get lots of feedback and requests which we incorporate but not enough participation. Something for us to work on.
    Thanks for the great article! Keep it up.

  2. This is something I could get passionate about Mitch. I think that engagement is directly proportional to the value or perceived value of the relationship. But ultimately it all boils down to the relationship. I really don’t think the things we value in the online world are that much different than offline. But technology needs to help us determine and sift through the noise and help us connect in more meaningful ways. Marketers will probably figure out the aggregator thing first, but will FAIL because they’ll see it in terms of $$ and not in terms of relationship

  3. @mitchjoel I agree on multiple levels.
    One. Traditional Media buying (reach/frequency/targeting) translates in new media/websites is similar to which cruise line just built the biggest ship.
    How so? Its a discussion about volume / displacement and how does the the new environment enhance the marketers ability to target the end-user.
    Two. I believe that a lot of media of online media still applies the same metrics as OOH. Reach is a core component but strong media plans take into account multiple levels of user states – Browsing vs. Active Searching.
    Granted, I am biased. We’ve been building ChickAdvisor.com based on the assumption that women want to share contextually relevant information about their experiences with products and services with other like minded women.
    How is this relevant? A woman would never gamble with her hair based on randomly choosing a hair salon out of the yellow pages. This is a deeply emotional decision that won’t be made lightly and requires a high level of trust as part of a social media website and it would never show up on Comscore, Hitwise, even our own google analytics but It does how up in the conversations and reviews on our site.
    We are very lucky to be working with some forward thinking brands who partner with us to engage with our members, both online and offline, to build compelling experiences that they can both benefit from. We’d be very happy to participate in these kinds of discussions going forward.

  4. Mitch, this is a huge issue and I believe putting a focus group together is a great idea. There are so many ways Traditional and New can work together for mutual gain. As far as metrics are concerned, I’m not sure what you are thinking but I’m all for looking at money impact. Sales and profits are the key metrics businesses care about. We have the technology to measure this impact both forms of media have on these crucial elements but few seem to be looking at it.

  5. The post and comments are thought provoking.
    At the outset, the number of connections looks like the right measure of success. Most of us quickly see that we’re not going to have a million followers on Twitter or 5,000 connections on LinkedIn.
    Quality then matters. Better connections with fewer people. Relationships and ongoing contact.
    Can the effectiveness of traditional media really be measured? Let’s say TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and billboards. No. So why is it reasonable to demand proof of success online? Probably because traditional advertisers and traditional marketers are asking. Do they really want to move away from the traditional?
    Advertisers and marketers who are committed to experimenting are well positioned to forge new paths. A study group might help if you can find the right participants.
    At a personal level, we change as we use social media. Maybe we get better at writing catchy headlines because of Twitter. Again, we can’t easily quantify the value of these improved skills.

  6. Great discussion. I’m approaching the topic of PLN’s from an educational perspective and try to persuade others of the value of a PLN. For them, thinking about the volume of potential new friends/contacts/whatever actually prevents them from engaging. Agree with others – it’s quality not quantity. Also, my network is small, comparatively speaking, but I still focus on particular people and glance at the rest.

  7. Mitch, this is perhaps the most important question we should be asking — how to determine the quality of relationships rather than the quantity. There’s been a lot done already — and still a lot more to do — with regards to filtering and relevance, but we need to determine a way to measure trust. I’d be curious as to whether network theory has anything to say about this

  8. impact
    There’s an interesting post on the Six Pixels of Separation blog today about metrics for social media. Here’s the problem that is set up:
    Maybe we have it all wrong (and I’m just as guilty as the next person). Why are we looking at h…

  9. So sign me up for this. It may take 1-2 months, but I’m working on a project to address this…not even sure it will work, of course, but have some hypotheses. If it does, may I have your permission to reach back along the lines of this post and get your support from your community to help put it through the paces?

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