We're a little too focused on collecting humans like marbles.
Our fans. Followers. Subscribers. Impressions.
Once upon a time, numbers like gross circulation mattered a bit more, because the available channels and paths for information were somewhat limited. So by putting yourself visibly in one of them, chances were pretty good that you'd actually be seen, and command a fair bit of someone's attention, at least for a few moments.
Now? Not nearly. Clicking "follow" or "like" is a fleeting, non-commital moment. And just as easily, that attention is off and elsewhere. (How many pages have you liked - whether sincere or just out of support for a friend - and never revisited?). It's the equivalent of someone picking up the flyer and tossing it in the next trash can. Veneered attention is so easy to give out, because it doesn't take our time, our effort, or even our brainpower. We simply need to click. And move on.
Is that really the only way you want to define success?
What That Number Does Tell You
What the larger network size represents - has always represented - is potential.
The number of your fans, followers, blog subscribers - they only ever represent the possible scope of your network. And it's likely an inflated one at that.
Not all of those people are paying attention at any given time, certainly not in today's firehose of information. An even smaller portion of those paying attention in that moment are actually in the right frame of mind to hear what you're talking about, posting, or offering. And then again, a smaller percentage of those attentive and interested will actually act.
The balance for you is that of course, you want the greatest possible potential. So sure, building a broad network with large reach can be a good thing. But in order for that potential to pay off somehow, you want to expend the effort growing both the size of your audience as well as the density of its overall relevance to your work.
This is really what we're saying when we refer to quality over quantity. Having 500 engaged and interested community member versus 50,000 ambivalent ones. Size only matters if there's substance beneath.
Building that powerful network, though - the one with both reach and relevance - takes relentless work and patience. It requires:
- Targeting: which means understanding your audience incredibly well so that you know where to seek them out, and can identify them when you find them.
- Filtered acquisition: focusing your work, outreach, and content on that customer profile (as well as being willing to let go of those that don't fit the bill).
- Nurturing: providing value to your existing customers in a consistent fashion, through content, products and services, community experiences, or otherwise.
- Propagation: Making everything shareable and spreadable as much as possible so your current "good fit" customers and community can help you identify others.
None of these are instant. They require time and effort. Sometimes you have to adjust them based on what you learn, or how your business changes. But over time, they together return a more sustainable network fabric.
The second one is the hardest for most businesses; we've always done the "cast the net wide and hope to catch a few good fish" approach. It's just far less efficient today than it once was. Why? Simple laws of supply and demand. The supply of information, opportunity, and people and businesses vying for our attention FAR, FAR outweighs the demand for it. And the minute we give our attention, we're distracted by a zillion other things.
But there's still a demand market based on personalized experiences, experiences with companies that feel like they're well-tailored to our needs as customers, and backed up without outstanding service and delivery. So getting attention is harder, and keeping it is harder still. The only answer for the latter is delivering great business, relentlessly, and in response to - and in anticipation of - what your customers tell you they need. (Remember, though, that the quality of that experiences is determined by the customers, not how awesome you think you are.)
Making the Case For Relevant Reach
Fishing with a net seems like the easier approach. And it can be tempting to just gather, gather, gather. Counting our marbles, celebrating how many we have, amassing some numbers that look impressive on a spreadsheet. And stopping there.
But when you want to show your results, is it more impressive to see:
50,000 Facebook Fans and 3% of them took a qualified action (opted into a newsletter, purchased something, wrote a positive review...something more than just clicking a link)
7,500 Twitter Followers and 20% of them took a qualified action
If I'm the boss, the second set of numbers is much more telling to me. The net result is the same on the surface - 1,500 people did something - but the second is a greater activated proportion of our audience. That ratio represents focus, efficiency, and impact. Those things matter.
So what we want isn't just reach, but relevant reach.
If your total number of fans, followers, or subscribers is the potential, when the ratio goes up, the larger network yields even better results. Not only are they more likely to do, say, or create something that's valuable to you, it gives you a richer base upon which to build communications and invest in those people in return. The reach may be part of the means, but it is not remotely the end.
It's a different way of thinking. But then again, we're in the midst of a different way of doing a lot of things.
I think we focus much too heavily on collecting superficial demonstrations of attention, and not nearly enough on the composition of the communities we build.
What do you think?