The diminishing returns of size

September 28, 2010

I gave a workshop last week to a bunch of museums in the North East entitled “Bootstrapping the Web”. Well, actually, it started off as that but following a questionnaire asking what they’d like to learn, the focus changed a bit to “How to do social media well”. I’m hoping the attendees learnt something – I certainly did, which is always great when you’re delivering stuff like this.

One of the things that is readily apparent, both from this workshop and from many of the conversations I have and see, is that many institutions – museums, galleries, businesses – have climbed over the first hurdle when it comes to social media. Many of them – more than you would expect – now have a social media presence. Usually this is a Facebook page or a Twitter account, sometimes it is a collection of Flickr pictures, sometimes a blog.

On first glance, these networks are of value because of their enormous size. Facebook currently claims 500 million active users (that’s, what, about a 14th of the world’s population). Twitter has 200 million or so (or is it a mere 15 million? who knows).

At that kind of scale, though, these networks are just sub-silos of the web. Just “having a presence” on Facebook or Twitter means as little as “having a web page”. We all learnt a long time ago that creating a web page was merely the tiniest tip of the biggest iceberg and that all the hard work comes after that: maintaining, driving traffic, linking, content, content, content. These networks differ because of the ease with which they allow network effects to bloom, and they have power when there is a personal nature to the interaction. The size itself isn’t by any means a guarantee of success, and nor is the hype.

This is a big lesson that many institutions – and people, for that matter – are only just  beginning to learn. Social media and social networks aren’t a golden bullet. The ease with which you can set up a presence belies the hard and clever work that is required to maintain this presence.

The thing we talked about a lot in the workshop last week was about how you put social media into a strategic framework: one which asks “should I be doing this at all?” as regularly as asking “how should I be doing this?”. I’ve always argued that we needed a JFDI beginning in order to kick start a more strategic conversation, but the reason for doing it should be made very clear right at the beginning. I (shameless plug) talk a lot about this in my book.

Gartner casts a light on what is likely to happen in the near future: many institutions will fall down the trough of disillusionment as they realise that social media isn’t the save-all that they thought it might have been, and we’ll see interest wane as Facebook pages remain unfriended, Flickr pictures aren’t looked at, and blog posts aren’t visited. The people who have thought about things a bit harder and a bit more strategically – those who are in it for the long game – will weather this storm and realise that the ROI on social media comes later on, and only with more strategic thinking.

7 thoughts on “The diminishing returns of size

  1. I was one of the guys on the workshop, and found it a most worthwhile investment of my time – oh and it was enjoyable too. Thanks Mike.
    I have to say that I was converted from being an overloaded marketer resentful of the time investment needed to communicate with the few followers to being optimistic about the potential. The turning point? The realisation that everything needs to fit together and have a purpose. The real potential to me is the possibility of developing worthwhile ‘relationships’. Only have to make the time now to think about it all strategically. I know it’s not necessarily going to be the answer to a prayer, but at least I’m positive about it now.

  2. Thanks Deborah – that’s made my morning 🙂

    I’m glad you found it useful, and please – as I said in my email yesterday – do get in touch if I can help further.

  3. Some great points here.

    Within my lawyer profession we have all got LinkedIn accounts… and yet only a handful of us use them to join discussions, ask or answer questions, join groups or post content. And they wonder why their LinkedIn accounts are not working…?

    In a recent talk I gave one delegate sweetly pointed out that no sooner had he opened his LinkedIn account than people started to want to connect and, well, you know, Link In with him. That proved too disconcerting for him.

    I recall discussing the illusion that the internet, and social media/networking in particular, can feel very alluring, as if it has all the answers if only we can solve the riddle.

    That is not the case. It is just another means of communicating – but for all of that, wow, what a means for those who are curious, patient and consistent.

    I love the JFDI point. It took me two hours last night to set up a web presence for a venture, with its own URL and wordpress.com providing an adequate level of online representation.

    We need to find ways to carry over the excitement and sense of achievement that comes from the immediacy of those initial account opening experiences into the more demanding aspects of ongoing content creation and maintenance.

    As I write it occurs to me that we can do that perhaps by celebrating the smaller milestones more. A strategised approach with bite sized goals can allow for this.

    Your first hundred followers? Doesn’t mean a thing in isolation, but it shows growth. You’re headed in the right direction. Encourage that, nurture that growth and celebrate it.

    Once you have got momentum, then you can start pruning back, refining and distilling the following and followers, fine-tuning content and the like.

    But you are still going to have to do it and keep at it. Stay encouraged.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Neil.

    I think the “patient and consistent” thing is the key here. When I first started working on the web in 1995 (eek), and all the way through the social media upcurve at Waterstone’s Online and then at the Science Museum – and beyond, I very soon learnt the (now blindingly obvious) mantra that great content is the heart of the web. I spent a whole 2 years being able to say “Content Is King” without people smirking because it had become such a widely-realised and hackneyed phrase.. 🙂 (I also said “bricks and clicks” with a serious face on, too, but we’ll pretend THAT never happened…)

    Content defines everything about compelling experiences. The UX work, the tools, the easy setup of WordPress, the drag and drop, the big fonts, the enthusiasm, the connecting – this is nothing without the *stuff*. This doesn’t belittle the excitement and enthusiasm – this stuff is great, and I’ve been writing for years about user experiences and how technologists need to understand how important this is – BUT I think the “Why Am I Doing This?” and “Can I Continue To Do This?” questions need to sit front and centre.

    In terms of numbers, yes, I guess there is a metric there, depending on your particular context and strategy – but I think the personal nature of that connection is waaaay more important than the sheer bulk. I’d much rather have a focused group of 50 people (followers, friends, commenters, editors, people who meet) who really understand each other and really add to the value of that network than 50,000 who only brush past it.

  5. I agree with all of this, but I think at the very start, those first few weeks, or even months, then we need to be able to see some growth.

    When I plant my turnip seeds, my initial concern is to see visible growth, and the impatient part of me wants to see that sooner rather than later. Those green shoots emerge and I am thrilled. They get to so many inches and then it is time to thin out the seedlings. If I start to thin out the crops too soon then I will at best inhibit and at worst destroy growth and crop production.

    This is a rubbish analogy, not least because my turnips failed miserably this year.

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