Categorized | social marketing

Social network? Or pyramid scheme?

Will follow you for food sign
Any food will do. Like spam, for instance.

Over the past three months, we here at Shoestring Venture have been damn-the-burritos-full-speed-ahead in social networking and marketing. Business, as you all know, is a school of hard knocks and, I can tell you feelingly, social marketing is a class where the hard knocks rain down like a Mike Tyson fiststorm. Outside of the constantly changing nature of social networking in use and technology, the whole shebang has fallen off the cliff far faster than any previous Web technology.

Which means that your social network probably has very little social or network about it, but is more of a giant illusion, a grand pyramid scheme like those letters that promise you thousands of dollars if you pay the sender one dollar and pass the letter on to ten friends.

Is your social network a real? Or an illusion? If social networks are gradually becoming an illusion, how did this happen? Spam, I’m afraid. All of us out there in social network land are trying to do the same thing and so increasingly not doing what we’re trying to do.

We have in recent months added thousands of followers and friends to our social networks. Like many others in the social networking field, we’ve only seen modest bumps in our conversion metrics. Why?

A simple look at many of our new friends and followers reveals a veritable twittertopia of social networking uber-addicts following or friending hundreds of thousands — even millions — of people. We have one fellow who’s following 2,900,000 people. Now imagine that only 1/2 of those folks post a tweet every day and you have over a million tweets stuffing this guy’s Twitter box every day. That’s a lot of “I had eggs for breakfast” nonsense for one guy to handle.

Those of you who broke your parents’ hearts and majored in anthropology or, worse, ethology, rather than accounting or finance are familiar with “Dunbar’s number,” the number of social relationships that a species can handle cognitively. Rhesus monkeys, for instance, can handle social groups of around 40, at which point they can’t really maintain all the social relationships and a new social group sloughs off the original one. Dunbar estimated that humans can cognitively manage a mean of about 150 social relationships (if they’re really motivated), but other academics have that mean at somewhere around 290.

Whether it’s 150 or 290, the number of “friends” or “followers” someone can really handle without a full-time staff outsourced in some exotic eastern locale such as Hyderabad is depressingly small. And it makes sense. If you work for a business, you can pretty much “know” everyone in the business up to about 40 or 50 people, after which point you really have to work at it (and who does except for networking freakazoids who will put even the guards and the janitors in their business network). If your company has 200 or more people, forget it. You’re sharing the elevator with people you don’t know and never will.there’s

It follows that a person can only really manage a couple hundred people in their social network, at which point everyone else is being put on automatic pilot. Whether you believe that our species’ Dunbar number is 150 or double that, there’s absolutely no way that someone can cognitively handle 10,000 social relationships, whether it’s on Twitter, LinkedIn, or schmoozing at wine-tastings and alumni gatherings. You can probably expect some 9,800 of those “friends” are, in fact, not friends at all, just names in a network or a handshake five years ago.

So how does someone end up following or befriending a whopping 10,000 people? Or 100,000? Or 1,900,000?

The same way we and everyone else in the social marketing world has ended up with thousands of followers.

Because social marketing folks count their success in the number of people in their network. And the easiest way to get someone in your network is . . . to get in their network.

And who wants you in their network? Why, someone who’s trying to sell you something. Social networking is becoming like some kind of e-marketer’s righteous punishment — the only way to get someone on your marketing and mail list is to volunteer to be on their list. A veritable kingdom of Spamalot. (And, of course, you remember the last line in Sartre’s play No Exit? “Hell is . . . other people!”)

Most social networks built by marketers are really pyramid schemes rather than actual social networks or valuable marketing tools. All those folks who are following 100,000 people or who have 50,000 Facebook friends have really only created a emarketing list primarily composed of marketers rather than people genuinely interested in what they have to say.

So do you have a genuine social network or a pyramid scheme with only a handful of genuine “friends” and “followers”?

And, in case you’re interested, between 90% (naked pyramid scheme) and 99.8% (product pyramid scheme) are the “losers” in a pyramid scheme. That means, naturally, that if your social network is a really no more than a pyramid scheme, you’re losing, not winning, even if the number of followers and friends is truly impressive.

It also means, surprisingly, that there are winners, too. And unlike a pyramid scheme, those winners aren’t the schmucks that buy in at the beginning and rip everyone else off, those winners are the ones who figure out how to sell to . . . other marketers!

The value of a follower or friend is, after all, in what they offer to your network and whether you provide anything of value to them. I firmly believe that the best social networks — even if they involve 10,000 people — involve some kind of mutual interest and interaction rather than a gigantic mailing list mediated through Facebook or Twitter. Social networking proves over and over again the canard that “give and you shall receive.” If you give spam, you get spam. If you give trivia, you get trivia. If you give something valuable, you will get back value.

We’re busy developing a statistical measure to determine the value of a social network and when we have it ironed out, you all will be the first to find out. Simply put, measuring the value of a social network merely by the number of people in that network tells you nothing. Having 10,000 followers who completely ignore you is worse than having one follower who eats up everything you put out on to the network. So other measures have to be included. For instance, the number of friends or followers a member of your social network has should “weight” their true value as a follower. If the number gets too high, say 100,000, they should be counted as a “0″ rather than “1.” With 100,000 people they’re following, they aren’t even seeing what you’re putting out on the network, let alone taking an interest in it.

And now, it’s opportunity time. Despite dire reports to the contrary, Twitter usage has most likely increased in the last few months if you count all the people who have stopped using the Web site and migrated to third-party PDA and smartphone platforms. People in general are trending to higher and higher numbers of followers and friends, so that surpassing the Dunbar number will not just be the province of marketers, but regular Joes and Janes, as well.

Which means that social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are going to require what I’ve decided to call “Dunbar apps” which help manage thousands to millions of people in your social network. Robin Dunbar himself postulated that language was a significant “technology” that allowed humans to form and manage social relationships with more than 40 or 50 people. Social networking will require a technological leap in which software does much of the mediating process by organizing and highlighting aspects of the social network to make large networks as cognitively manageable as a social network of two or three dozen people. Dunbar applications could do this through filtering, evolving message preference engines (only Facebook streams or tweets that fit a preference history make it through), clustering, and associations. The role of Dunbar applications will be to evolve social networks into something more like neural networks, in which a social network of tens of thousands of people goes into the black box of the Dunbar app and comes out a nice manageable set of 40-50 people every day. And the user is getting the best of the network every day and that person’s followers is getting the best of what they have to offer (no more “I had eggs for breakfast” tweets).

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