I don’t know my online audience and neither do you

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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  • This is one of the most encouraging posts I’ve read in a while. I too collect good content, such as this, print it off andd refer to it. I don’t need to be a vocal supporter. But I am at times. You are a consistent “Data Prophet.”

  • Todd Lyden

    Mark, isn’t this one of the biggest problems of “social media marketing?” The idea that it is so quantifiable versus traditional marketing methods?

  • Good post, Mark, and this, “We are only measuring the loud people”, an important observation that speaks to my notion of the “soapbox” society. What might be important to remember, too, is that some folks are quieter than others. Translators, for example, tend to be extremely discrete. Drawing them out, hearing them, is a constant challenge for me.

  • Brooke Ballard

    I think the biggest question to answer here is: “What CAN we do to more accurately know who’s out there sharing our content in some way?”

    I’ve looked into this, and as you know, the options are few and far between. I’m hoping someone can shed some light on analytics or tools in this thread!

  • Quiet is not irrelevant. Case in point! : )

  • The good news is that social marketing is more quantifiable than many other traditional methods. What is your audience for a billboard? For a magazine ad? A little better than those methods but still a bit mysterious.

  • Great point Nancy. BTW … good to hear from you : )

  • Delighted, Mark. I confess to being a bit of a lurker, too, but continue to be an enthusiastic fan. 🙂

  • Todd Lyden

    Ok, I’m going to argue this.
    I don’t think it is “MORE” quantifiable. Just more easily quantifiable, but not any more actionable. The audience can be just as mysterious, but the effect can be just as easily measured and depending on where how and when, just as EASILY measured. To me, social media marketing has been sold with some silver bullet and I think while is “easier/lazier” – it doesn’t account any better or worse than IRL “lurking” that occurs. IE there is just as much “dark marketing” in real life as online.

  • Carla_Johnson

    Mark, I’m so happy to read this post. For all the people who say you should only do things if you can measure them, this points out one big reason why that’s not the case. It also reinforces why IRL relationships matter.

  • An area ripe for investigation. I think the pieces are here and there. Just a matter of putting them together in resourcesul ways!

  • Yes, and yes! Thanks for sharing your wisdom Carla.

  • Anders Orsander

    The first thing coming to my mind reading this post was: What’s my ratio sharing content I read on this blog online and offline? I can’t say for sure but I definitely talk about things I read both here and around the web offline.

    Next I thought of my student days and my classes in social psychology and social dynamics. There are always those who tend to be quiet in a group, and the same mechanisms are at work online as offline. But as you say Mark, quiet is not irrelevant.

    One pearl of wisdom for us to tend to speak in a group is to remember the saying: we have two ears and one mouth and therefore we should listen twice as much as we speak. For us loud people this is a good reminder.

    One obvious risk of forming a marketing plan based on a vast minority of your fans is of course that the minority doesn’t properly represent the whole.

    What can we do to learn more about the quiet people who follow us? My only tip is to take time to talk to them, individually. On the rather big Facebook page Digital Bible (9.7 M likes) where I’m an admin we get a lot of messages to our inbox. The admin group spend a lot of time to reply individually to them all. Many of the people who inbox us are not active on the page posts.

    Even if we still don’t know the whole fanbase on the page we get insights from the inbox we never get from the page insights. Getting to know at least some of the quiet people gives us at least a little bit better representation of the whole.

    Thank you for an inspiring post Mark.

  • Thanks

  • I’m going to try to connect my thoughts, though I’m not sure I can. Spent the day trying to figure out 1099s and the IRS and my brain is fried. lol But as I was reading this, I thought about something I heard last week (I think it was last week). Jeff Bezos said something like, people ask me what’s going to change, but they should be asking, what isn’t going to change. He said its hard to plan for change you don’t know is coming, but building your business on what you know will stay the same? That’s possible.

    I thought that was very wise and for some reason it came to my mind reading this post. Possibly because you hit that in your posts? That good content will always be good content, no matter what changes? And more, lots more. I do know that when people ask me how I know much of what I know, I tell them I learned it here. In fact, I mention {grow} in an interview that hasn’t gone live yet. They asked how I grew my Twitter following. 🙂

  • jonmikelbailey

    I love this! I think it reinforces the notion that good content does not occur simply on an island of social signals. The best feedback I get on the things I post come from actual human interactions. Sometimes it is running into someone and them commenting on a post I wrote. Sometimes it’s a client referring back to a post. I think metrics are important, but nothing beats “straight from the horse’s mouht.”

  • Respectfully disagree. When we can track a buyer’s path through our site and connect specific pieces of content to buying behavior, we are on to something powerful. Some companies are even connecting content to credit card sales. A marketer from 15 years ago would marvel at the powerful capabilties at our finger tips. I don’t think anybody would say it is “easy” or a silver bullet, but it is a light year ahead of what we could do just a few years ago.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom today Anders. Your comment is a real gift!

  • This is a really wonderful comment and the Bezos quote might have inspired an entirely new blog post! Is there a link to that anywhere? You ROCK!!!!

  • VERY keen point sir. Now here’s the challenge: How do we capture those very important qualitative metrics in our dashboards? How do we show the power of that relevant and legitimate feedback to our bosses? Not easy but you have hit on a real key to success in this business.

  • I agree that online sharing activity is a small percentage, and that offline measurement is important.

    At a a marketing roundtable I asked the question, “how do you measure offline success? “. I got blank looks, and somebody even suggested that it was impossible.

    I doubt it’s impossible, it’s just not as easy because there are no simple dashboards you can buy.

    I’ve used discount codes for tracking and landing pages specific to each media source, and the time honoured technique of just asking the client.

    Any other ideas on how to track the other 98%?

  • haha – timely and relevant as always Mr. Schaefer – we have just been discussing this very topic in relation to changing Facebook algorithms and passive followers…

  • I do have some preliminary ideas but not fleshed out enough right now. I was hoping to get some insight from the brilliant {grow} community!

  • Sounds interesting. Circles within circles!

  • Interesting thought, and yes – it’s absolutely true. There is a certain percentage of your audience that does not interact with you digitally and as a result you can’t measure them. They will discuss your content and your ideas, but you won’t find out about it. The bigger the brand – the bigger this percentage is. The unfortunate thing however, is that these people will only come out in force and voice their concerns when they have something negative to say.

    However, here’s an interesting little story. After working on our company blog for a while, I would always find great value in diving into GA and seeing where the traffic is coming from (as all of us do) – I was keenly interested in the sources to see if there were certain websites that were directing traffic to us. I found a little app link in there that I hadn’t seen before – and noticed that every week, this place would send us between 20-50 visits. Not a lot of visits, but they were consistently coming from this source.

    I found out that this app is a team-communication tool. So there’s some team / organization out there passing out links to my blog on a weekly basis and talking about them (I would assume).

    So I started doing some sleuthing work to find out who this was, and my initial starting point was to check agencies in the city because I had been promoting most of our content to them using Facebook ads. I spoke to some agency contacts I had, asked them if they used this tool – most said no, until after a few weeks, one of them via LinkedIn said yes – they use the tool.

    So I asked them if they’ve been passing around the content, and they said they were – and have been doing it for quite some time. I was completely oblivious to this, a group of marketers that are my exact target audience are discussing my content offline and I have absolutely no idea. I wouldn’t have either, had they been passing it around via e-mail, I was lucky they were using an app for it and that I decided to go on a sleuthing mission after I found it out via GA.

    After that, every week I’d send them an e-mail asking them to let me know what they thought and give some feedback. It was a stage where I was hungry for feedback, and I got the best feedback from those guys!

  • Anders Orsander

    My pleasure Mark. Reading the other comments, Avtar Ram Singh’s and Jon-Mikel Bailey’s experiences, it all points to the same thing. Reaching at least some of the quite people comes down to human interaction on our part as bloggers/website admins/producers of content.

  • Wow. What a great story. A solid blog post in its own right my friend.

    I think the search for the dark sharing does take sleuthing and there may even be a scalable process for this — putting together a list of tricks. Another thought I had was LinkedIn recommendations. The other day somebody I really didn’t know recommended me for blogging and marketing strategy and I wondered, is this a signal from a fan I never heard from before? Perhaps I will never hear from him again but that was the sign he was giving me that he’s a fan. What do I do with that information? Is there a way to connect the dots and form a more meaningful connection? I think in some ways the small signals are there in dozens of places but there’s no easy process to track, quantify, develop.

  • jonmikelbailey

    Good question, when you find out can you email me the login? 😉

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  • Josh St. Aubin

    “Lurkers” have huge benefits even though we tend to cater most to the vocal minority. Not seen or heard counts for something too.

  • It’s very true! While sometimes endorsements on LinkedIn come from people hoping that you’ll return the favor, I can vouch for the fact that quite often it’s people who aren’t incredibly vocal in comments or via social sharing who would like you to know they enjoy your work.

    Case in point (and I’m not making this up, I promise) – after noticing that I was getting “endorsements” every now and then for certain skills I decided that instead of letting it feed my ego and sit satisfied, I should reach out to these people and ask why they endorsed me (if I don’t know them and have connected them only online and not in person).

    A few didn’t respond, a few responded saying that they liked my commentary on the posts I shared on LinkedIn, and a handful said that it was because they went through a specific post (and linked me to it) and said that they liked it, sent me a connection request and popped the recommendation along.

    So you’re not wrong Mark – those are strong signals and if you have the time perhaps reach out to a few of the promising ones inviting them to share their insights on your posts, perhaps you reaching out to them and personally inviting them to share their thoughts will break the barrier between a few of them and transition them from being on the “dark” side to the easily measurable one!

  • I really don’t know of a single system to collect that kind of stuff in one place. Most analytic systems look at trends and averages instead of the very small signals that might be the most meaningful. As I talk to people in the analytics business they seem to be struggling with that too but there should be a way to collect those small but meaningful signals.

    Following the LinkedIn example, what if we knew that one LinkedIn recommendation came from a person who only gives three recommendations a year? We could flag that interaction as significant even though it was a very small, single signal. I get tweeted many hundreds of times a day. But what if a program picked up that 25 percent of an individual’s tweets were about you, even if they only tweet once a week? That would get lost in most programs but it would be a way of identifying your true and loyal “Alpha Audience” (the term I have created for my upcoming book). What if you knew that there is person who ONLY comments on your blog? That means something, even if they only comment once per quarter.

    There is probably no way to find your “dark audience” but I think there is a business opportunity to find your “gray audience” — the people who are sending you small meaningful signals that are getting drowned out. A business opportunity? Maybe I’ll turn this into a blog post. : )

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment sir.

  • Two takeaways from that post (it’s more than a comment that you’ve posted!).

    1. That’s the future of in-depth social and marketing analytics programs, at least I hope so. I honestly don’t know of any tools that do this or of any companies looking to make advancements into this field. But that is exactly the kind of data that we need. Not just top fans and top influencers and most enagaged visitors – but also CONTEXT! Fantastic thoughts Mark.

    2. You should turn this into a blog post with some extended thoughts and patent the idea!

    And to think that certain websites have taken off comments from their blogs. Look at the opportunity they’re wasting. The comments section on Businesses Grow is always so insightful and often leads to somethig new, fresh and bigger – and this is a prime example!

  • Yes, you are exactly right about comments. It is a goldmine. Just look at you and me as an example. The only way I would have ever known you is through your fantastic comments. Now, we are collaborating right here on the spot through this intellectual thread. We are becoming friends. You wrote a super nice piece about me on the Buffer blog. And there is no doubt that we will meet next time I am in the UK (or when you come to the US). You never know where a relationship like that will lead. Of all the social media platforms, I believe the greatest power for business benefits comes from the blog community.

  • Yes I totally agree that we are too obsessed with the few. There are lots of people visiting your (and my) site you don’t “see” or “hear”, not even in the website statistics as some of them block them in a way or another. A while back I wrote about the reality about comments, how measuring a blog popularity through them is impossible. Of course someone stormed in to comment that maybe I just don’t do it right. 😀

    Of course it’s hard to understand that all the analytics and all the comment counts and other measurements only give a look at surface of what’s going on at a website. Especially for those who don’t understand how web works and how people work.

    Thanks for writing this!

  • Milton Ayala


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  • If you think about it, being open and vulnerable with the information that you come across online is a bit of an acquired skill (especially for those not in our industry). Not everyone is comfortable interacting “socially” the way that we do. And even though the Internet was built on trust, there’s still the psychological factor (of openly sharing what you come across online) that many still haven’t overcome. great article, Mark!

  • Awesome. Thanks for sharing your wisdom today Mervi!

  • Very true. Good point Jessica!

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  • Hi Mark – Intriguing post! I must admit I bristled at your calling social media analysis “measuring the loud people.” It’s a valuable methodology that is not well understood and this negative PR makes my job a little harder. Typically the best marketing plans are based on a deep understanding of customers drawn from a broad range of research (not just social media analysis). I’m sure you’ve heard of the 1% rule (also known as the 90-9-1 principle), which estimates 1% or less of people create content (write blogs), 9% are contributors (comment on blog posts), and 90% are lurkers. I don’t think of contributors as “loud”– they are influencers, lead users or trendsetters.

    The insights drawn from social media analysis are a valuable piece of the puzzle. You may not be able to gauge the passion of your lurker audience, but there are analytic proxies. Compare the passion you inspire in your vocal contributors as compared to the passion inspired by other marketing authors. It’s more important to understand your relative effectiveness rather than have absolute numbers.

    Social media analysis is an important (but relatively small) component of a comprehensive marketing research plan. Inc Magazine published an excellent article on research: http://www.inc.com/aaron-aders/the-4-essential-research-strategies-in-content-marketing.html Hope it is helpful. Thank you for writing this provocative post and for allowing me to share my point of view.

  • I’m probably not making your job harder. Your job is your job. It will probably be the same tomorrow with or without my blog post. : )

    I didn’t write an article about marketing research. I wrote an article about social media analytics. And without question, we can’t connect to most of the online audience, let alone know who they are. Based on what you wrote here, I don’t really see that you disagree with me but somehow it comes across like you disagree with me.

  • You underestimate the power of a broadly-shared post Mark! I am sure to hear something about “measuring the loud people” at my next social media research presentation.(sigh). 🙂 What I disagree with (without being disagreeable I hope!) is that marketers would rely solely on social media analytics to inform a marketing plan or understand their audience.

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  • Kathy Condon

    Not surprised by this…..#s illustrate that the number of jobs gotten through face-to-face networking is still 80% the number before social media started. That’s why I advocate at least 3 face-to-face meetings a week.

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  • Carol Azevedo

    IoT will be a game change in this area, when we can integrate buying behaviors that are not available on social channels by for example integrating hardcopy books sales records. A lot of “dark” data is out there waiting to come to the “light”.

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