There is no question about it, when you first start a blog, a Facebook page, or a Twitter account, it is HARD to build up your account. Unless you’re already a huge brand with a hefty base, “if you build it, they will come” does not work in social media. Most of us have to prove our worth on a social media site – we have to put the work in to let people know first that we exist and second that we’re worth their time.
From Viruses to Critical Mass
Diseases sometimes do spread across the world very quickly, however what is less discussed is that many conditions have to be put into place before a disease spread can occur. Diseases generally go viral only after a gestation period that can last many months to many years – the virus has to find the right host (aka audience), cultivate the right DNA (aka the message), and configure the right method for mass transference (aka the campaign).
Now that we’ve utilized that metaphor, let’s put viruses aside… Since viruses have a tendency to make people feel sick and are generally looked upon negatively, I choose to get to the essence of what’s happening and call this phenomenon “critical mass.”
There isn’t just one thing that brings your account to a critical mass. It has to do with the quality of your posts, your ability to understand and cater to your target audience, the focus, authenticity, and consistency of your outreach efforts… and truth be told, a bit of luck.
But when it happens, hitting critical mass is quick, unpredictable, and totally exciting! Once critical mass happens, the momentum soars – people will come to you. It is a glorious event that rewards your effort!
How Many Followers Are Needed For Critical Mass?
On LinkedIn, users get a special prize for having more than 500 connections. Is 500 the magic critical mass number? Do you only need 500 fans, 500 blog visitors per day, or 500 Twitter followers, before it takes on a life of its own?
I would say it depends on the quality of your posts as to whether your critical mass will be 500, 1,000 or 2,000. High quality posts, such as those on our client TisBest’s Facebook page, quickly allowed the company to reach 500 loyal fans. Once that happened, the Facebook fans took off on their own – telling their friends who in turn tell their friends – and quickly the TisBest fan base surpassed 1,000, and continues growing strong. And they don’t have to try anymore – they can focus on continued quality and timely engagement.
However, we have other clients who take longer to learn how to effectively engage their audience and turn fans into advocates. For them, it takes somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 fans before their accounts really take off unattended. It depends quite a bit on post quality and well-timed regularity, as well as developing the skills to truly engage.
Metcalfe’s & Zipf’s Laws, plus The Long Tail
If you’ll humor me for a moment, let’s check out three principles that are often spoken or written about in discussions of critical mass:
- In Metcalfe’s Law, the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users who are connected within that network. Fair enough: your network is only as powerful as its number of users*. (Bob Metcalfe is attributed to inventing the Ethernet, by the way.)
- Zipf’s Law is a law of scale, where the quantity of (whatever it is you’re studying) is inversely proportional to its rank within a group of (whatever it is you’re studying). So essentially the popularity of a word, website, or fan page follows a predictable distribution that is proportional to the popularity of all the words, websites, or fan pages.
Not terribly profound, but it does put things in perspective: if you are a microfinance site, you can only be as popular as microfinance sites are – a microfinance blog’s fan size and growth is proportional to other microfinance blogs, and will not be proportional to a social media blog, or example. Unless an unpredictable and large variable comes to play, social media blogs are just going to be more popular than microfinance blogs, so there is no reason to strive that high!
- The Long Tail is essentially a niche marketing strategy, coined by Clay Shirky and popularized by Chris Anderson in a 2004 Wired article and later a book by the same name. A free market generally follows a distribution that favors the most popular 20% of retail items.
Take movies, for example: Blockbuster or Wallmart would ever care about and stock the top 20% highest-selling movies, because that’s all that works with their market model. They can’t have a bunch of slow-selling items on their shelves for months at a time. But then along comes Netflix, who is making a killing on the other 80% of the titles! It costs next to nothing for Netflix to stock a whole lot of different titles due to their new kind of model. Thanks to Netflix, there are a whole lot of documentaries that are actually getting seen – and changing people’s minds – because someone believed in the long tail.
Personally, I don’t think any one of these principles stands on its own as a guide for how we should think about critical mass in social media. But together they do begin to paint a picture of the ways you can generate a successful social media presence.
Two other things to keep in mind:
- The greatest factor of all is still the creation and maintenance of an infrastructure of true engagement.
- All three principles fall flat if they aren’t effectively set up and maintained.
*Note: there is some argument that users do not equal Metcalfe’s original description of “compatibly communicating devices”, but we’re interpreting loosely here anyway.