Sometimes it seems like all the reblogging and reposting and retweeting is a bit of a Ponzi scheme: Someone at the top of the pyramid gets a lot of credit, and followers, for being the originator of a post or link, but as the content is passed along, the amount of social currency decreases sharply. By the time the link goes viral, everyone you might have forwarded it to already has seen it.
I’m sure you notice this dynamic if you use social media and follow a specific industry closely. Unless you catch the first posting of something you’ll end up with a big block of reposts. There’s a huge amount of competition to be the first to post a relatively tiny amount of truly interesting content.
It’s gotten to the point where “being first” to post can feel more important than the content actually being that relevant or interesting to your friends or followers. Social media is supposed to be a utility, a way of connecting with people and spreading the word about something quickly. Instead, it’s become a numbers game that’s placing increasing demands on our time just to keep up.
Brands are falling prey to the same trend. On Facebook, for example, there’s a huge amount of pressure to amass sheer numbers of “likes.” And that leads to a lot of ideas that are all about getting Facebook likes and less about doing anything truly valuable for the brand or fascinating for your audience. It may seem like you’re getting more and more followers, but really you’re just leading people down an alley rather than sending them someplace fun.
In a way, what’s happening on Facebook and elsewhere is not that dissimilar from the endless news cycle, where everyone talks about the same thing over and over, and they feel they have to be talking about the same thing at the risk of seeming irrelevant.
It reminds me of how things were six or seven years ago when the primary objective was for brands to collect as many e-mail addresses as possible, with little or no thought as to what they were going to do with their 2 million e-mail addresses once they’d been stockpiled in databases. Going after e-mails was more often than not a serious obstacle to engaging the audience, when for the most part all you were really doing was trying to get an e-mail address in exchange for viewing an ad.
The irony is that five years later I’m sure those brands are sitting on 2 million e-mail addresses that they can’t use effectively, or at all, because they’ve moved on to amassing Facebook and Twitter followers. Once you’ve got your 2 million names, you’ll probably find that Facebook isn’t even your target anymore. And also that those contacts aren’t portable—you can’t take them with you to the next hot platform that gets everyone’s attention.
Those of us who have been doing digital for a while have seen this same cycle play out over and over. And it’s our job to continuously help clients break out or this cycle. It’s implicit in every brand brief: find a way to stand out from the crowd.
So how can you escape the Facebook Ponzi scheme and break away from the me-too approach? Basically, don’t start your thinking with “Facebook is important, so we need a Facebook idea,” because you’ll likely do something stupid. Just because someone clicks a button called “like” doesn’t mean that they actually like you; maybe they’re just after the coupon you’re offering.
Digital encompasses so many different platforms and technologies these days that thinking about ideas that live across multiple digital channels, and focusing less on Facebook as the hub of your idea, seems like a better starting point. And it definitely seems like the goal shouldn’t be getting followers or likes, it should be turning your brand into something that’s worth following.
This is not to say that you should stop quantifying what you do online, just to stop putting the cart before the horse. You want to define a coherent branded behavior that determines how your brand acts towards other people. If your behavior is likable and you do likable stuff, that “like” button starts to actually mean something.
Instead of just being an empty metric, the number of likes you have could actually reflect how much emotion you’re generating in your audience, and the amount of interest real people have in your content. And you would be using Facebook, and social media in general, the way it should be used—as a platform for creating real and truly meaningful human connections.
Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group. He can be reached at Benjamin@barbariangroup.com.