Everyone agrees – social is no longer optional – it’s an imperative. The question is, should you be investing in your company’s brand, or you as the CEO?
First, let’s compare some of the worlds most engaging social media users to their organizations. @BarackObama has 45M Twitter followers. The White House, enormously successful in organizational terms, only has around 10% of that. Obama has 1.2M followers on LinkedIn whilst the entire US Federal Govt has 7K. @DavidCameron has 750K Twitter followers, and @HillaryClinton, with no official current role, still has an impressive 1.7M.
OK, so government is boring and politicians a lot less so – we get it. What about the business sphere? @TonyHseih of Zappos fame has 2.8M Twitter followers, but the very company which made him famous has only 29K followers. @GuyKawasaki the ‘evangelist’ has 1.4M followers on Twitter and the company he evangelizes for, Canva, has 17K. (We’d compare his following to that of his better known former employer, Apple, but Apple doesn’t even have a twitter account. Its CEO does – @TimCook has well over half a million followers).
We’re not being selective here by focusing on the most celebrated social media users. Rather, a deeper look paints an even starker picture. Consider a company you may have heard of, lead by a person you’ve almost definitely not heard of. BuildDirect.com is a DIY materials distributor with a respectable Twitter following of 11K. Their CEO is @JeffBooth – he has 152K followers: 14 times greater than his company. @ToddSacerdoti has 193K followers on Twitter and 16K on Linkedin. His company Brightroll has 4K followers on Twitter and 5K on LinkedIn.
What do these statistics tell us? Given at best the same resources (and often a huge disparity in favour of the organization), a social media campaign will be more successful in terms of engagement and exposure if undertaken by the individual rather than the brand. The reason goes to the heart of ‘social’. Definitions of ‘social’ coalesce around the concepts of friendliness, companionship, and humanity. In Latin, ‘socius’ means ‘companion’ and ‘socialis’ means ‘living with others’. Humans are inherently social beings, so when technology and companionship collided in the 2000s, the social media ‘big bang’ occurred. Social validation is important; a Facebook ‘like’ is a social signal. It affirms our existence the same way that someone nodding at you on the sidewalk does.” - Dr Pamela Rutledge, media psychologist and expert on the relationship between behaviour and technology.
We can never interact with an inanimate object, much less an intangible thing like a brand, in the same way as we interact with another person. The most successful brands- and we’re talking about the very top echelon like Apple, Coke or Nike, may achieve an emotional response fro their customer, but still this emotion only flows in one direction. In rare circumstances we can ‘love’ a brand but the brand can never love us back. But a person, that’s different.
The top 30 celebrities on Facebook had a combined fan base of almost 2B. The top 30 brands had a combined fan base of 960M. Google Plus showed similar disparities. Of the top 100 Twitter accounts, 85 were individuals. 14 were social/media outlets leaving 1 single non-media corporation: the NBA (hardly your typical company). Now consider the resources behind these corporate social media accounts: the largest organisational fan base belongs to Coca Cola. Of their $2.9B annual advertising budget, 20% is devoted to social. Thus, they spend a whopping $600M on driving social media engagement, yet Shakira has 25% more fans. (When it comes to Facebook, Coca Cola is more in the Vin Diesel league).
There are obvious key person risks in investing in the profile of individual vs. the brand. What if the CEO leaves? What if you choose a more charismatic person to be the social face of the brand, and that person leaves, taking their followers with them? (Note the lawsuit between Phone Dog who sued former employee Noah Kravitz for allegedly stealing Twitter followers. Nevertheless, and even given these risks, it is clear that a campaign will be more social, engagement will be more real and the value for money will be far greater if companies embark on the social media journey through individuals promoting the brand rather than a faceless corporate account.
The last word goes to Richard Rosenblatt from Demand Media. When asked by Bloomberg Businessweek why he used Twitter, he said (emphasis added):
“Twitter allows me to tap into a broad audience of people to get new ideas in a succinct and effective manner. Twitter also allows our team, users, board, investors, and colleagues to feel the energy and momentum in our business without sending cold periodic (and always dated) e-mail updates. I can express in real time exactly how I am feeling about our business or my life. Being able to share that energy is exciting and in some instances cathartic.”
Note the possessive pronouns. He helped drive Demand’s social media because it was about him!