A practical approach to modern marketing.

One Reason Social Network Numbers Are Hard To Believe (Hint: They’re Not Real)

Run more than a couple “old school” direct response programs (especially print, which costs real money), and you very quickly become focused on the hard numbers.

Which is why so many traditional marketers regard social network numbers with some suspicion; they aren’t verified, and those generating the numbers (Facebook, Twitter, etc) have a vested interest in inflating them.

Turns out the go-slow folks may have been right (from ZDNet):

The numbers of users reported by Facebook, Twitter, Google, and many other sites, are closely watched. They reveal trends in adoption and they are one of the few public metrics available to analysts trying to assign value to companies preparing an initial public offering.

But how accurate are these numbers?

In some anecdotal cases, the number of users, active and actual, could be as small as one-third. And nearly one-half of user accounts could be fake or contain no user profiles.

How large is this problem of fake and empty user profiles?

Here is an analysis performed by Kevin Kelly, a former editor of Wired magazine and a book author, on 560,000 people that have him in their G+ “circles.”

Where did these half million people come from? And who are they?

With the help of my research assistant Camille Cloutier, we randomly sampled my great circle…

Conclusion: Most of the half million people following me on Google+ are ciphers. They have signed up, but have not made a single public post, or posted their own image or a profile, or made a comment.

He and his assistant discovered that only 30% published anything on G+ and only 6% were “outright spammers.” But the largest group he classed as,

Ghosts. 36% had not even filled out a profile.

Mr Kelly pointed to a study by two journalists at Popular Mechanics that only 25% of their Twitter followers were real, and 49% were fake or spam.

I’ve long suspected social media — despite all the promises of tailored audiences and covert data collection — required a mass-marketing mindset. Marketing in social media channels often has an untargeted feel, and the value of some of the commonly counted outcomes (likes, etc) are hard to measure.

The commercial value of social media isn’t in doubt, but in terms of raw marketing power — and in the experiences reported to me by clients — its short-term potential is probably overblown.

Social media ad clickthrough rates remain dismal, and my small business clients report far better conversion rates from email than social media (which is why I suggest they convert social media contacts into email — a better marketing asset — whenever possible).

There are probably a host of reasons for the above, but one is likely the fact that better than half the accounts being marketed at don’t reflect active members.

My Take

I’ve witnessed new media “experts” talking local businesses into abandoning their traditional marketing channels in favor of daily social media work, and in at least two of the cases, the results were disastrous.

For many, the Return on Invesment (ROI) of social media channels has been uncertain, especially once you consider the opportunity costs of the time investment.

Some clients — especially those making timely offers to local audiences — are seeing good results from social media, but others are pulling back and focusing on channels that continue to produce (blogging, email, cold calling, etc).

The questions I ask are simple; could my clients do better investing more time in email and traditional marketing channels (cold calls, direct response, etc)? Many are saying yes, automating their still-valuable social media as much as possible, and focusing on their most profitable channels.

Are overblown social media numbers one reason the marketing ROI of social media remains low for small and medium-sized businesses?

Probably. There are other factors, and I’ll look at those in an upcoming article.

Market smart, Tom Chandler.