For the past 10 years brands have been building massive audiences on social media networks ranging from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat, and more. Brands have collectively spent billions to build these audiences, with mostly no regard for quality and emphasis on quantity, but to what end?
While everyone in the business world is talking about a tech bubble, there is a social media bubble brewing right in front of everyone’s eyes.
What game are brands playing?
A Social Media Bubble looks and acts no different than a technology bubble. A bubble brews when market prices are unsustainable. For technology it is when valuations go up and up and up with seemingly no regard for performance or worth. In social media, a bubble is when brands spend money and time getting more and more followers/fans/likes/retweets with seemingly no regard for quality.
One cause of a social media bubble is due to competition between brands on social media. For example, it seems commonplace that a brand may feel like they are “losing” to their competitor because they have only, say, 70,000 followers on Twitter and 50,000 followers on Instagram and their competitor has over 100,000 followers on both. While it might be true that the brand with 100,000 followers is “beating” the one with 70,000 and 50,000 respectively, it isn’t necessarily the case. What about the quality of the followers? Where are they located? How much reach do they each individually have? Are they active followers? How much engagement is coming from them vs non-followers? All questions most brand managers rarely figure out when comparing themselves, but very important and a byproduct of the bubble atmosphere.
This isn’t only the brand manager’s fault, a piece of the blame goes to executive management at these corporations that look at the surface of social media and just see one number in comparing themselves to competitors. When the CEO of a big brand looks at their profile page on social media and sees the number of followers or fans, and then looks at their competitor’s numbers it is easy to see why the mandate of getting to or beating their competitor (or staying ahead of their direct competitors) can lead to a bubble in social media.
What will the social media bubble look like when it pops?
Mostly it will look like a ghost town of idle accounts, broadcasting to people who aren’t there anymore and wasted billions. By focusing on the short-sighted vanity metric of total amount of followers above all, brand managers will eventually run out of excuses for executives on what sort of impact these followers have on their business and the return on investment in continuing to grow their audience. This doesn’t mean every social network will crash and burn. But it does mean highly followed accounts propped up by vanity will crumble and be worthless.
What should brands be doing?
If a brand wants to survive the eventual pop of the bubble, they need to fight the urge to focus on vanity metrics of social media, and focus on these two things: a) the quality of their followers, and b) how it ties back to their underlying business.
In terms of the quality of followers, the focus should be on quality over quantity. Buying bots, spending money to get new followers, and similar tactics of follow/unfollow (this is when people follow en masse on follower/following networks like Twitter and Instagram, wait for 48 hours to see who follows them back and then unfollows the rest) are all fools’ gold. The focus should be on getting and retaining high-quality followers that come from high-quality content (content = tweets, posts, etc.), conversing with people already talking about your brand or people talking about your industry.
In 2014, the Wall Street Journal had an article about social media and quality followers and how the shift was happening with a few brands. They focused on the Ritz Carlton slowing down campaigns because they were gaining Facebook fans too quickly. While they only had half a million fans at the time, compared to their competitors with 3-4x as many, they focused on quality over quantity, spending time analysing what guests do and do not like, having a material impact on their business.
In terms of how it ties back to your underlying business, you need to take a step back. Forget about followers, fans, engagements, and think about what your business is about. If you are a big sports brand like Nike, Under Armour, Adidas, Reebok, Puma, your business, when all is said and done, is about selling your product. Wouldn’t it be important to understand how many of your followers are customers? In the last month? 6 months? Last year? Lifetime? I think so. But let’s get back to selling your product. Your focus should be on selling more product, using your social media presence to do that – not getting more and more followers without regard to quality.
This means doing things that connect with your prospective customers. For example, for a sports brand you may want to do a series of local events and invite local fans/followers to come to convert them into customers (if they aren’t already) or to turn them into repeat customers.
Bottom line: Focus on quality over quantity and use your social media audience and presence to further your business goals.