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Friend, fan or follower: Not all social media connections are created equal

Measuring your brand’s social media equity can be a tricky business. Confronted by the multitude of platforms, buzzwords and measurement tools you might be tempted to simplify both your metrics and your strategies. After all, who’s to say that a follower on Twitter is more or less valuable than a fan on Facebook?

The problem is that as seductive as this urge to simplify may be, it can land you in hot water. Just as in real life, social media relationships come in many forms, and have different sets of rules.

In order to be clear about how these connections differ, its useful to map them out for yourself. I’ve taken a crack at it below, using the three most popular social media relationships:

    Fans — people who “like” your brand on Facebook
    Followers — people who follow your brand on a social broadcast platform like Twitter, Tumblr etc
    Friends –people who have added your brand (or brand ambassador) as a friend

The metrics I’m using here are:

  • Cost — how much effort and / or marketing budget is required to establish the connection
  • Value — the potential benefit of each connection to brand (anything from clicks to sales)
  • Responsibility — how much individual care and attention each connection requires
  • Quantity — how many connections can be acquired and maintained by a single brand (this is inversely proportionate to cost)

Fickle fans
As you can see, fans are cheap to recruit, numerous and don’t require much individual attention. But they are also the least valuable kind of connection (at least on an individual basis).

It takes a second to click “like” on Facebook, and another second to click “unlike”. This makes fans fickle, but because they are so numerous you can afford to lose a few as long as you are recruiting more.

BEST FOR: Large brands who want lots of reach and a way to broadcast to their customers
WORST FOR: Small brands who don’t have much name recognition yet

Flighty followers
Although Twitter pioneered this connection type, it has quickly spread onto other platforms like Tumblr (blogging), Quora (social recommendation) and Posterous (blogging). Followers are people interested enough in your brand to include it in their daily (or hourly) information stream.

Since these platforms lack both Facebook’s enormous reach and its world-class discovery mechanisms, it is generally costlier to recruit new followers than fans. This means that you will normally have fewer followers. Also, because keeping people amused is more difficult than simply keeping them as fans, followers are generally harder to hang on to.

But followers are also more valuable than fans on average. Because they are actively “listening” to you, and doing so on platforms that are well designed for both sharing and expressing appreciation, a small number of active followers can potentially generate more buzz than hordes of passive fans.

BEST FOR: Brands that naturally generate conversation (media, niche brands, luxury brands, fashion)
WORST FOR: Large industrial brands or utilities

Firm friends
The oldest form of social media connection is also the most poorly understood. In the early days of MySpace, competitive teenagers made friends with thousands of brands, celebrities and weirdos — all in an effort to outdo their peers in amassing the most connections.

While some users still do this on Facebook, most stick to people they actually know in real life. This shift from “fake” to “real” friends is part of what has made Facebook such a global success.

However many marketers still assume that friending is the best (or only) way to engage with people on social media platforms. While friends are extremely valuable connections, they are also extremely costly. The status grants you access to the most intimate aspects of a person’s online life, and also carries the heaviest burden of responsibility.

As such, friending is not a territory into which marketers should venture lightly. Facebook forbids brands from “impersonating” people and forging friendships. You entire account can be suspended without warning if you cross this line.

BEST FOR: Personal brand building, brand ambassadorship, tiny local brands
WORST FOR: Virtually all other brands

Other ways of connecting
Of course friends, followers and fans are only three out of the multitude of possible connections. I’ve mapped a few other variations below:

Entrants (people who enter competitions) are costly but not very valuable. This old fashioned way of generating attention looks quite crude and ineffective next to the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

Spontaneous communities are a marketer’s dream: people who love your brand so much they have started their own online appreciation society. They cost almost nothing and can be very large, but be sure to give them plenty of love or they may turn on you in an instant.

Niche social networkslike Ning can be both cheap per connection and high in value, but they require a lot of care and attention. Running a community is a full time job. If you take short cuts you will kill the goose that lays the social egg.

Professional networks like LinkedIn can produce extremely valuable connections, but they are naturally more limited in number than a platform like Ning (let alone Facebook). They also require a good deal of care and attention if you want to keep them alive and useful. Business connections are all about (relevant) activity and value – business people don’t have time for chit chat or spam.

Too complicated?

With all these different rules and platforms, isn’t social media a bit of a minefield? No more so than real life, with all its nuances and complexities. And no amount of rules or buzzwords can replace good old-fashioned manners. Treat people with respect, regardless of whether they’re fans, followers or next in line for the throne, and you should be just fine.

5 Comments

  1. jezebel

    August 23, 2010 at 9:21 am

    MeMeBurn said “It takes a second to click “like” on Facebook, and another second to click “unlike”. This makes fans fickle, but because they are so numerous you can afford to lose a few as long as you are recruiting more.
    BEST FOR: Large brands who want lots of reach and a way to broadcast to their customers
    WORST FOR: Small brands who don’t have much name recognition yet”

    This is UNTRUE for local music. Facebook is popular as a launchpad for local, independent music in SA (whereas in the rest of the online world, MySpace holds sway, with both fans and the industry). It is incredibly useful for upstart bands to access a growing fanbase through regular communications and brand development, for building loyalty through contact between gigs, and EP, music video and album releases. It is, in fact, an integral part of a band’s growth on the scene(s).

    I believe the same could be true for contemporary art, photography, entertainers and personalities (e.g. comedians, talk radio DJs, actors) and other creatives.

  2. GabrielleRosario

    August 24, 2010 at 7:47 am

    Great, substantial article Al. Reminded me of this from Paul Adams on Designing for Social Interactions where he unpacks definitions of Stong, Weak and Temporary Ties. http://boxesandarrows.com/view/designing-for-social

  3. ed han

    August 25, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Very interesting discussion of the various forms of social media & illuminating.

  4. ed han

    August 25, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Very interesting discussion of the various forms of social media & illuminating.

  5. ed han

    August 25, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Very interesting discussion of the various forms of social media & illuminating.

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