The disconnect between social media popularity and business effectiveness

social media popularity

By Mark W. Schaefer

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a reader of the blog and he made an offhand comment that is still haunting me. This is what he said:

“Of course it is possible to have a huge social media presence and look like a big deal while doing very little. You can automate just about everything.”

Reflecting on this, it’s true. This person he was talking about has what appears to be a huge social media following, an impressive Klout score, and the super-human ability to pump out tweets at an average of one every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. On the surface, he is a social media stud.

But his online presence is almost entirely automated. There is no human effort involved after setting up programs to follow people, tweet, and post for you on a schedule.

I enjoyed getting to know this fella in real life but could not help but note that there is certainly a vast disconnect between the “social proof” of his humongous online presence and the relatively little true business experience this young guy possessed.

Social media numbers may not translate to expertise

Content is so important and pervasive on the social web that it can create the appearance of influence even in the absence of experience and true authority.  On the web, it’s not unusual for tremendous popularity, and influence to accrue apart from business effectiveness.

It adds a level of complexity to the business world. What is true? Who is to be believed?

“There is often a disconnect,” explained Mitch Joel, President digital agency Mirum. “The ability to drive results for a company has little relation to your ability to create compelling content for your audience. I’m not sure that most people who consume the content or take place in the social engagement understand that just because somebody has a knack for writing or can put some great ideas together, it doesn’t mean they have a knack for taking those ideas to market and delivering a return on investment.  So it’s interesting and a bit dangerous to think that publishing and moving content is necessarily the same influence you really need to run a business.”

Is that kind of influence sustainable?  Can real personal influence be really built on content that is unsubstantiated by personal performance, authority, intellect, or experience?

In my book Return On Influence,, Dr. Robert Cialdini (best-selling author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion) told me that this interaction between powerful social proof and content that is unique to the web. “It’s true that with content, we create value because we give people access to insights they didn’t have before. That’s not unusual — we’ve always had opinion leaders of groups who have coteries of people listening to them because they provide valuable insights. What’s interesting on the Internet is the social proof aspect of this.  People will perceive the value of the individual and the content based on how many other people are accessing it. That’s evidence of its validity.”

Social proof may define authority

I think you can see this at work in your own experience.

Let’s say you do a web search for information on the best way to grow tulips. You find two posts. One has been tweeted 250 times, one has been tweeted twice. Which one will you read? On the web, don’t we judge people the same way?

“That’s the fundamental insight that comes from the concept of social proof,” Dr. Cialdini said. “The fact that other people believe something because other people are thinking something or doing something and that gives the content validity. There is no greater logic associated with it, there is no greater empirical evidence associated with it, the simple fact that other people are accessing it is the social proof.

“People who might be upset by this fact have a case to make,” he said. “The Internet offers an unprecedented opportunity to manufacture social proof through tricks and devices. In the same way that is possible to override the validity of any fundamental principle once you understand how to trick it, it’s possible to market your own prominence through strategies that don’t have anything to do with the real insights or value of what you provide. You structure your algorithms on Amazon to do it, or Klout to do it, and the like.”

Before the Internet, celebrity was associated with genuine accomplishment. Today, celebrity can be created by simply becoming known!  And that can be automated.

Is fake celebrity sustainable?

A Facebook friend recently posted about a secret group that was forming to call out social media guru “posers.” I can see why there is some negative reaction against these faux influencers. In the offline world, we expect our influencers to earn their status through performance.  Surgeons better perform surgery.  Chefs better make wonderful meals.  Movie stars better make movies that appeal to us.  But that is not necessarily the case on the Internet.

Nothing has to be real.

In the long run, such witch hunts won’t be necessary. I do believe that in the long run the Internet rewards true expertise and authority. It will sort out.

Disconnecting our personal traits from the ability to influence can be dangerous, but it can also be liberating. Influence built on real effort and original content – our own hard work, our own voice — can free us from the shackles of traditional trappings of influence associated with going to an Ivy League School, living in the right part of town, having movie star good looks, or kissing the right butts.

I sincerely believe true authority will win in in the end. Stay centered. Do great work. Be kind to people and help them.

Sure, some people fake it, but today anybody, anywhere can also build real influence on the web.  And that is such a powerful and amazing opportunity.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.The Marketing Companion podcastis among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration Courtesy Flickr CC and Boston Public Library.

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