Social Media

4 Big Things You Thought You Knew About Social Media

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Everybody knows how social media marketing works. They know that people use social networks to connect, that it’s all about getting shared, that there are no more gatekeepers, and that if users love their content, it’s going to dominate on social media.

Or more accurately, that’s what they think they know.

Because it turns out these 4 tenets of social media marketing are dead wrong when you stop looking to the obvious and you start looking at the data.

In reality, these 4 myths are working against thousands of marketers every day. Let’s talk about why, and what you can do about it.

1. People Use Social Networks to Connect


If there’s one thing everybody “knows” about social networks, it’s that people use them to connect. I mean, it’s right there in the name: social networking.

This core concept is so incredibly obvious that almost nobody questions it. It’s a simple leap to go straight from this axiom to the conclusion that the only reason to use a social network is to connect with your consumers. If you fail to connect, you’re wasting your time.

There’s just one problem: this isn’t actually why most people use social networks.

In 2012, a team of university professors conducted a survey of 417 undergraduate students to find out what motivated them to use social networks.

Researchers had already known for quite some time that internet browsing was driven by five primary dimensions: a hunger for information, a desire to express themselves, a need to communicate with others, a longing for entertainment, and a need to pass the time.

In this study, a team of professors analyzed which of these five factors played the biggest part in social media usage. They learned a few very important things:

  • Essentially nobody was using Facebook to seek out information. (Contrary to some marketer’s beliefs, nobody is hopping on Facebook to find out who the best lawyer is.)
  • Facebook activity was driven most heavily by a need for entertainment and a desire to pass the time.
  • Students who had a desire to express themselves or communicate with others were only moderately drawn to Facebook.

In short, for the most part, people weren’t using Facebook to connect. They were using it because they were bored.

More recent studies reveal conclusions that are even more sinister. German social scientists surveyed 584 Facebook users and analyzed the emotion it elicited most often was envy.

A more recent study, published in August, found that people who had used Facebook tended to feel less satisfied with life afterward. The more they used it in the time between contacts, the more their satisfaction dropped.

Thankfully, things aren’t all doom and gloom.

It turns out that the way people use social networks can lead to completely different results. Most people who use Facebook spend most of their time lurking. They use it passively: scrolling through their newsfeed. This kind of activity leads to the aforementioned envy, loneliness, and loss of life satisfaction.

Those who used Facebook actively, on the other hand, saw the opposite result. Those who engaged with content, left comments, and used the chat feature tended to feel better after using the platform.

What does all of this mean when we put it together?

The way that most people use Facebook leads to the most negative results. Most people are using Facebook to pass the time and entertain themselves. This kind of passive use, in turn, leaves them feeling less emotionally satisfied afterward than they did before.

Core social networkers, the ones who are actively posting and interacting, are the only ones who get an emotionally satisfying experience out of the platform. These are the people who are using social networks for self-expression and communication. But they are also the least common type of user.

What does this mean for marketers?

  • Most people are using social networks to entertain themselves. Even though these are actually the least satisfied users, we can’t ignore them. To successfully reach the widest audience, we must be entertaining. Failing to do so means failing to reach the mainstream, and this means it’s very difficult to grow.
  • A much less revolutionary but still vital conclusion is that we must encourage connection on social networks. The more often we can pull consumers out of passive use and into an active state of mind, the more satisfaction we can bring to our audience. A satisfied audience is energized by followership, instead of fatigued by it.
  • Marketers should make an effort to go beyond encouraging passive consumption of content. Marketers who share tools, promote events, and otherwise create interactiveexperiences will be far more successful at shaking users out of a passive mindset. When sharing content alone, they should focus primarily on actionable content: information that people can use. They should go one step further, and encourage its use, rather than just implying it.

In short, your primary goal should be to get users “doing.” Content isn’t always the best way to do that. And that brings us to our next myth, and one massive elephant in the room.

2. Shareable Content is the Key to Social Media

The first thing everybody asks when they get into social media marketing is “How can I get more Facebook Likes?” Once they realize that Likes have very little impact on the way their content spreads, they switch to a more mature question: “How can I get people to share my content?”

Unfortunately, even that question is a bit misinformed.

This desire to get content shared has its origins in the “viral marketing” camp. This is the camp of marketing that believes (or at least tries to convince others to believe) that if you just produced the right piece of content, it would get shared and shared and shared.

Each generation would share the content with their friends, the exposure would grow exponentially. Through six degrees of separation, you could then reach the entire world.

If you’ve been doing this for a while, I hope you know better by now.

A study by Sharad Goel, senior researcher at Microsoft Research, discovered that viral marketing is a lie. He analyzed 80,000 news stories and 540,000 YouTube videos as they spread through Twitter. He also analyzed 5 successful online marketing campaigns. Nowhere in the data did he see a viral event. Those who were very lucky could manage to get a piece of content shared with a friend of a friend at best.

Among 4 highly successful outliers, Goel still saw no evidence of viral growth. They owed their success to conventional and semi-conventional broadcasting.

In a follow-up paper, still under peer-review, Goel expanded the sample set to roughly a billion events as they spread through Twitter. Even then he could only locate a few hundred “viral cascades.” Despite this, Goel still found that “essentially everything we observe, including the very largest and rarest events, can be accounted for by a simple model operating entirely in this subcritical parameter regime.”

In plain English, this means that after analyzing a billion events as they spread through Twitter, even the most insanely popular among them weren’t spreading “virally.” Events like “Gangnam Style” don’t happen because things get shared with friends of friends of friends.

They happen because they make their way to very influential “nodes” in the network.

This looks much more like “poisoning the waterhole” than like a “viral pandemic.” Even among popular videos and tweets, the correlation with “virality” was low.

On a related note, there’s very little evidence suggesting that the six degrees of separation are real.

Instead of urging marketers to produce “viral content,” Goel recommends shooting for a 20 percent lift on the original audience. Really good content can reach an audience 30 or 40 percent larger than their initial audience by encouraging sharing behavior.

Does this mean that exponential growth is completely out of reach? Not exactly. It just means that it won’t happen with a single piece of content.

Take this hypothetical example:

  1. A marketer starts with an audience of 100.
  2. They share a piece of content that generates a 20 percent lift.
  3. They now have an audience of 120.
  4. They share another piece of content with similar lift.
  5. Now they have an audience of 144.
  6. If they successfully do this a total of 10 times, they will have an audience of 619.
  7. If they did this successfully 50 times, they would theoretically have an audience of 910,044.
  8. If they did it 100 times, they would have an audience larger than the population of humans on the planet. (Obviously, all strategies have limits.)

This is still exponential growth.

Notice, however, that the 20 percent lift isn’t the only key to this kind of success. To see this kind of exponential growth, they also have to keep every single person who sees the content. It should become immediately clear that this is the true limiting factor to growth.

It’s relatively easy to produce a piece of content that expands your reach by 20 percent. It happens all the time. It’s extremely difficult to keep reaching the people you have already reached. This is where social marketers need to be putting most of their efforts: retention.

Most marketers lose as many audience members as they gain through sharing. The only thing that matters is the size of your active audience.

Even a truly viral piece of content (which apparently does not exist) would be pointless if it failed to retain an audience. (And most content “designed” to go viral will do just that.)

So, how do you retain your audience?

  • Get as many of them off of social networks and onto email subscriptions as possible. Email open rates often reside around the 10 percent range, while CTRs on social networks are generally less than 1 percent. (This won’t discourage sharing. More sharing occurs through email than on social networks.) Keep in mind that Facebook posts, on average, only reach 16 percent of your audience.
  • Adding social sharing buttons to emails can increase click-through rates by 58 percent.
  • Use “cliffhangers”
  • To reiterate what we said in the previous section, encourage active, rather than passive, participation. This keeps morale high. Content alone isn’t always the best way to do this. Either way, always focus on the actionable.
  • Among consumers who stick with brands, 64 percent do it because they share their values. Taking a stance might prevent you from earning certain types of customers, but it is crucial for retention, which we’ve already demonstrated is crucial for growth.
  • Avoid excessive selling. Research by MailChimp (and many others) has demonstrated that promotional messages tend to lead to unsubscriptions.
  • Master the art of the frugal “wow.”
  • Use targeted emails and your conversion rates can be 208 percent higher.
  • Customer loyalty programs, especially ones that focus on the social benefits, rather than the financial ones, can be a great way to boost retention. Research has shown that consumers who have been given an artificial “head start,” for example, tend to be far more likely to follow through on completion of a goal.
  • Collect customer feedback through surveys and online reviews. This demonstrates that you care about peoples’ experience with your brand, and helps you identify areas of improvement.

Retention is typically seen as a way of getting more profit out of each individual. This is clearly true, but we’ve shown that it’s also a crucial part of audience growth. Without it, exponential growth becomes impossible, because there’s no such thing as viral content.

And this leads us to a related myth.

3. Social Media Circumvents the “Gatekeepers”

One of the stories marketers tell themselves about social media goes something like this:

Once upon a time, your reach was limited by your ability to impress the “gatekeepers.” If you failed to impress them, and if you couldn’t pay them, you were doomed to obscurity.


Social media circumvents this. Now it’s possible to appeal to audiences directly. We no longer need the gatekeepers.

But if you were paying attention throughout the last section, you can spot a fatal flaw in this doctrine. Content doesn’t spread virally. Remember: the most successful pieces of content on the web make their way to highly influential nodes in the network.

To clarify, this is a “soft” myth. It is in fact possible to grow your audience without influencers, as we discussed in the previous section, if your audience retention is high enough. But it’s extremely difficult to do it this way. In reality, it’s far easier to seek out these “gatekeepers” and get on their good side. Combined with the strategy discussed in the last section, you can become unstoppable.

My main issue with this myth is that it’s so easy to interpret it this way: “You can succeed with social networking alone.” You can’t.

Rather than claiming that social media circumvents the gatekeepers, I prefer to think that it has redefined them.

The new gatekeepers are influential bloggers, tweeters, and the most vocal brand advocates within your own audience. Only by appealing to them can you succeed with social media.

A lot has been said about how to leverage influencers, and I’d rather not regurgitate it here. Instead, I’ll point you to some excellent guides:

I’d also like to point out that there’s no shame whatsoever in spending money on influencers (assuming you’re not doing something asinine, like buying a link.)

We’ve long advocated hiring influencers on as guest (or regular) bloggers, as graphic designers, as photographers, as cinematographers, and as tool-makers, to name a few. This is by no means a necessity in this day and age, but it can be a tremendously powerful shortcut if you have the resources.

Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with PPC advertisements, although they ought to be helping you grow an audience. If PPC is your primary traffic stream and it’s likely to stay that way, you’re wasting money and failing to build a future for your business. I’ll say it again: retain those visitors.

Now, on to our final myth.

4. If Content Is Awesome with Your Users, It Will Be Awesome on Social Media

While this is a necessity, it’s not remotely a guarantee.

Lately, we’ve been stressing the importance of appealing to your “two audiences.” In other words, you need a core audience, and you need the mainstream. Without a core audience, you don’t have retention. That means you don’t get growth, and you don’t get lifetime customer value.

Without the mainstream, you don’t get sharing. That means you don’t get growth, and you don’t get leads.


Social media is very much a place for “loose commitment.” People don’t exactly give away Facebook Likes like candy on Halloween, but they’ll Like a page far more willingly than they’ll give a brand their email address.

At the same time, the messages that you put out in Facebook are a slave to PageRank. Tweets get buried in the newsfeed. Heavy Pinterest users aren’t going to look at every single pin in their feed.

It’s common practice to never see every message in your social feeds. In stark contrast, most people at least see every subject line in their email inbox.

What I’m getting at is this: social media isn’t really the place to reach your core audience. It’s where your mainstream followers are. It’s for people who are fond of your brand but aren’t yet ecstatic about it. (We’ve already linked to a study by Social Twist showing that 56 percent of brand advocates prefer to use email to share branded information.)

With that in mind, you need to package your content appropriately for the social network in question.

Take this example from Quick Sprout, and the takeaways:

  • Bad Facebook posts simply link to the content
  • Bad Facebook posts don’t use text copy to grab attention (and feed EdgeRank)
  • Good Facebook posts include images that are engaging, sized for Facebook, and worth sharing even if you haven’t clicked through to the main content. A link in the text field of an image is a far better way to get people to your content.
  • Good Facebook posts include an intriguing title or call to action in the text field of an image.
  • Good Facebook posts encourage shares first, comments second, and Likes last, since this is the order of their impact on EdgeRank

If you want to see an example of a Facebook Page that completely dominates, take a look at I F*cking Love Science. With two million active users, 7 million Likes, and almost zero traditional press to help it get there, it’s an incredible example of the best way to post on Facebook.

In much the same way, if you want to succeed with Pinterest, it’s a very good idea to create “instructographics” that are sized perfectly to encourage a click-through. Likewise, you can use Twitter cards to make your tweets stand out, tweet the most memorable quote from your blog post, and attract attention with striking images.

The common thread here is that if you want to maximize success on social networks, you can’t rely on your blog content alone. You need to take a look at the kinds of things that are succeeding on those social networks in the absence of a blog link.

Let me reiterate that. You want the post to get shared, not the blog content. Use the post to link to your content, but don’t rely on the blog content to get shared on its own. (Of course, you should be encouraging sharing behavior on your blog as well.)

Get Out There and Dominate

Savvy social media marketers let data and experience inform their strategy. They understand why people really use social networks, and what it takes to make those experiences more enjoyable. They understand that while shareability is important, retention is key.

They know influencers are the true source of exposure, and they realize that content needs to be properly packaged and formatted in order to succeed on social networks. If you’ve learned something today, I’d love it if you could pass this along. Thanks so much for reading. Now get out there.

Pratik Dholakiya is the founder of Growfusely, a content marketing agency specializing in content and data-driven SEO. He regularly speaks at various conferences about SEO, Content Marketing, and Entrepreneurship. Pratik has spoken at the 80th Annual Conference of the Florida Public Relations Association, Accounting and Finance Show, Singapore, NextBigWhat's UnPluggd, IIT-Bombay, SMX Israel, SEMrush Meetup, MICA, IIT-Roorkee, and other major events. As a passionate SEO and content marketer, he shares his thoughts and knowledge in publications like Search Engine Land, Search Engine Journal, Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company, The Next Web, YourStory, and Inc42, to name a few. He can be found at Twitter @DholakiyaPratik.

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