Can social media personalities “scale?”

By Lori Witzel, {grow} Community Member 

Social media can really benefit your personal brand.  But how do you keep its most powerful value — the “one-to-one-ness” of social connection — intact when that reach explodes? The irony is, the more popular you become on the social web, the less effective you might be!

Here’s a story from my own life that illustrates the problem I’m talking about.

In 2005, I started my personal blog. I was posting photos, sketches, poem s— things that weren’t about marketing and had nothing to do with growing a business.  I was amazed that people followed it (I didn’t do any of the things people suggested to grow a blog), and was even more amazed that my visitors came from all over the world.

Two of those new blog friends were from Perth, Australia. I got into a jokey comments war with another blog friend, Willie Baronet, about who most wanted to win a tin of Milo (a chocolate drink mix) from my friends in Perth. I won the contest, and gloated about it in the comments on Willie’s blog.

So far, so good. Some new friends, some fun, some chocolate. I was really liking this social media thing.

In fact, I enjoyed the experience so much I decided to ship my friends in Perth a surprise gift—all the fixin’s for a Tex-Mex party. Were they ever delighted!

They were so delighted, they decided to start a blog to foster people exchanging their local stuff around the world. It was called Gimme Your Stuff.

Notice they were inviting people to join in; a year later, they had 479 “cultural ambassadors” from 36 different countries. I couldn’t keep up, and neither could my Perth friends. I bailed out; shortly after, they found someone to take Gimme Your Stuff, we lost touch. Explosive growth + one-to-one social media = KABOOM.

Social media enabled me to scale—but I couldn’t make scaling work while keeping one-to-one connections intact as my reach grew.

The social marketer, exposed to those tools that enable social marketing to scale, has a similar problem.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Pinterest help people and brands “scale”—they enable (and can help automate) one-to-many connections, and can give start-ups the same impact and presence as established companies. Tools like HootSuite and TweetAdder further enable social scaling, by making it easier to manage and grow social reach.

You see where this is going, don’t you?

Social media thrives on vibrant one-to-one connection (part of why I keep coming back to Mark Schaefer and the {grow} community.) It can build communities among those with shared interests, and link the victims of disasters with those who can share their stories and get them aid.

The dilemma: how do we balance personal connection with the very scalability that makes social media marketing so powerful?

The upside for the broad-reach social marketer is huge potential top-of-the-funnel metrics, which look great for potential Return on Marketing Investment. And if you use tools like the Salesforce Marketing Cloud, you can get insights into your brand’s social communities that help you hone campaigns.

As you scale up, however, you may struggle with KABOOMs arising from the lack of real person-to-person connection. The “Kaboom Effect” on a brand can be huge.

Hashtags can get hijacked by angry customers (see what happened to McDonald’s #McDStories here). Social “charity-promo” efforts can make for spectacular fails (see Bing and its donation effort here). KABOOM!

While one-to-one social efforts may cause one person to fatigue, or to net an occasional troll, the sheer size of enterprise-scale social media marketing means scalability adds an equivalently super-sized “Kaboom Effect” risk.

That said, I think as social marketers we’re very fortunate. Through the personal connections we make across platforms like Twitter and this blog, we “get” that we are all in this together. And knowing the risks of increasing social scale, we can advise our employers and clients in sensitively managing their companies’ social streams.

This is something every social marketer has to think about. Can you scale your personal engagement? Or, are you going to suffer from the “Kaboom Effect” like my friends and I did? 

Lori Witzel is a Demand Generation & Content Marketer based in Austin, Texas. She creates whitepapers and similar content, and consults on demand generation programs. Lori blogs on marketing at Haunted by Marketing.

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  • Hi Lori. I understand where you are coming from. It is extremely dificult to maintain close relationships as your community grows. do you have the latest breakdown in terms of the different types of users on social networks. My understanding is that a very small percentage are in the broadcast/interact category and the vast majority only listen and share. If you atre producing continual value-adding, interesting, thought-provoking content, i believe you can continue to scale without running into difficulty. Thank you very much for the insightful article. Regards, David Graham – Deloitte Southern Africa @twitter-67603734:disqus

  • loriaustex

    Hi David! Thanks much for the comment – and no, don’t have the data on how many are listening/lurking and how many are interacting. That would be very interesting – I need to go dig it up. I wonder if Mark ever felt the “KABOOM” effect as the {GROW} community has grown?

  • loriaustex

    Hello, all! My thanks to Mark for letting me guest blog and share my experiences – if I’m slow to reply this morning, please bear with me – I have a day o’ meetings, but I will reply to your comments, I promise!

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  • whatilearnedwednesday

    You’re right — and that it is kind of the inevitable. I wonder if there is some equivalent of the Bill Clinton of social media! Personally I find it awesome when I get a follow-back on Twitter from one of these types of people/brands, even though I don’t have thousands of followers myself, or a response on a blog post when I’ve left a worthy post on a blog with a large following!

  • Lori, really great article! And what a wonderful trip down memory lane. I often muse about out the advent of social media has impacted “old-fashioned” blogging, which I’ve done for so many years. Thanks for the brain food!

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  • What a brilliant blog Lori! I’m the same as @whatilearnedwednesday:disqus when it comes to not having a ‘large following’ – interaction is what it’s all about for me. Anyone on Twitter who isn’t engaging – regardless to their number of followers, isn’t someone I’m necessarily going to pay attention to, unless it’s pure data that I’m getting and valuing. I’m a huge fan of Mark and recently mentioned him in my blog about navigating social networks.

  • loriaustex

    Hi Wednesday 🙂 – I loved your “Bill Clinton of Social Media” image! I wonder how George Takei manages to keep things feeling personal on Facebook despite the fact that he’s blown up way beyond 1-to-1-ness?

  • loriaustex

    Willie, welcome to the {grow} neighborhood! And thanks for being my friend and Milo rival! For anyone who’s seen the cartoony avatar I use on Facebook, that charming sketch was done by Willie. 🙂

  • loriaustex

    Bronwyn, ditto for me, especially on the followers:following ratio one ideally has. I am curious about so many things, I follow lots…and thus my ratios go against social media wisdom. Oh well!

  • Hi, Lori. I was quite taken with your article because it says exactly why I am taking things slow when it comes to social media. I love making my clients feel well-cared for and I can’t do that if I get too popular. So, I am going at things steadily but surely, ensuring that no one gets left behind with the attention I plan to give out. I don’t mind being not so popular as long as I don’t get to see your KABOOM.

  • Lori;

    You raise an interesting point. The British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar has conducted studies into the maximum number of people one person can meaningfully interact with on a continuous basis. It’s around 150 people and the number appears to be governed by the size of the human neo-cortex, so it’s not likely to change anytime soon.

    You are thus right on the money with the issue of scalability. I wrote a post about the issue, discussing the origins of Dunbar’s Number and later work done by Bruno Goncalves to apply it to social media networks like Twitter. The post offers some suggestions on how to use the number to scale your networks:

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