Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Selling shovels to prospectors: Social Media Marketing's epic fail

Ok, so the headline is probably a bit extreme. Sorry, I don't usually like to trade in sensationalism. But as I was discussing yet another pitch by a social media metrics company with a colleague, the metric of 'friend counts' came up.

The pitch goes something like this: "You know, our research shows that 80% of soc-net users have 0-100 friends and 20% have more than 100...the 80-20 rule. So we use this key metric to identify influencers for special marketing treatment...because if they have more than 100 friends and a bad experience, well, that's alot of risk".

It sounds logical. But counting friends is meaningless. Here's a few reasons:

  • Are they really friends? It is a well known phenomenon—Trophy Friends--that some people collect and keep score with their friend counts (or linked in connections, or Twitter follows or friendfeeds, etc.)

  • Are influencers always influential? Identifying influencers based on gross generalizations about individuals (e.g., friend counts) is something marketers have always tried to do…Is someone you friended after a 15 minute conversation really influenced by your opinion on detergent? There are literally millions of us, though, who get to be influential once in a while among small groups of people.

  • What does 100 friends mean in creating a definition of influencer? Why not 50? Would a social media metrics company feel good about saying it’s discovered a new rule: 95-10, where 95% of users have less than 5 friends? Probably not...because it doesn't promise easy. If you really wanted to understand influence, versus the willingness to click ‘add’, then you’d want to track a recommendation or comment that made it’s way through the ‘friends’ network of a supposed influencer.

Here’s a somewhat relevant example of that using twitter. The list filters popular content against a list of Twitter users who were first to Tweet about it…it’s a proxy, but one could make the case that, at least in this example, some of the first movers are influencing those who follow (i.e., friend) them. The trouble is that once you get below the top 100, you have thousands of people who get to be first…once. Classic Long Tail statistics

So what?

This gets at the issue afflicting social network marketing…the point of social networks is NOT marketing…that’s why Facebook has millions of members and no revenue. (see here for a post on this point).

Finding ways to appeal to millions of people around shared interests will require thousands of approaches…none of which will make the marketers job easy…pitches referencing 80-20 rules or other hokum feel right because it conforms to the marketers pre-existing belief system (which, at least in the client data we’ve worked with, isn’t generally true--or useful).

So getting to the point of this post: If there’s a gold rush on, the real money is made is selling picks and shovels to the prospectors.

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