online audience

In a normal week, I’ll get at least one email similar to this one:

“Hi Mark. You don’t know me. We’ve never connected but I read your blog every day and have bought all your books. I have several of your posts hanging on bulletin boards around our office and we frequently use your material in our meetings and client presentations. You’ve made a big impact on me and I just wanted to let you know.”

This man is clearly an important member of my online audience. He’s buying my books and transmitting my content on a regular basis. But he’s not active on social media so I’ve never heard of him before. No tweets, posts, or blog comments. In fact, there is no social media analytics program on earth that would reveal his name to me because he is not engaging with me in a public way.

This provokes an interesting question: How many of the most important customers and potential customers out there can you really identify through social analytics programs? Here’s one possible answer: 2 percent.

Does that seem surprising? Read on.

Most sharing takes place offline.

What percent of all word of mouth content transmission occurs online? 50 percent? 60 percent? Maybe even higher than that?

The actual number is 7 percent according to research reported by Ed Keller and Brad Fay in their book The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace.

We tend to over-estimate this number because the online version of word of mouth transmission is so easy to see and record for measurement purposes. Social media provides such an intoxicating database of tweets, mentions, and posts that it is easy to rely to heavily on these symbols of content transmission.

But it gets more interesting.

A number of studies show that about 70 percent of social content sharing occurs through mechanisms we never see through analytics like email, private messages, and text messaging. This is called “dark social media” because our content is moving but we’ll never know it because it’s behind a secure firewall.

So we only capture in our analytics 30 percent of that 7 percent that is not offline word of mouth, which equals (drum roll please) … 2 percent.

Does this make sense? Could it be true that we can only identify 2 percent of the people who are sharing our content?

Pick any blogger who has been around for awhile and ask them what percent of their audience comments on the blog — they’ll say it is about 2 percent. Coincidence?

Facebook recently reported that less than 5 percent of the fans of a company page typically share the content online. In the same ballpark.

Marketing to the online audience elite

The precise number can be debated but I think we can agree that there is a massive, silent audience out there we may never know. In my mind, I am seeing many, many people reading this blog post (maybe you), nodding in agreement and thinking “Well, he doesn’t know I’m out here!”

I think this poses some interesting questions about marketing to an online audience.

  1. We are only measuring the loud people, a vast minority of those who love us. What is the danger of forming a marketing plan around a group that is probably less than 5 percent of the total audience?
  2. We cannot mistake “quiet” for irrelevant. There is a huge number of passionate fans out there who just never tell us they’re passionate fans! They are a powerful group.
  3. If we can’t accurately measure our content audience through normal analytics channels, what CAN we do to more accurately know who’s out there sharing our content in some way?

What’s your view? How do you really know your online audience?

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Ruth Raymond. Book link is an affiliate link.

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