Social Media Continues to Miss the Mark: The Overemphasis on Popularity

Are you seeking validation in vanity metrics? Find out why social media’s over-emphasis on (easily-manipulated) popularity signals betrays true authority in the age of “influence.”

Years have passed since I first became frustrated with people working in the social media / blogging world putting an overemphasis on popularity as if it demonstrates any semblance of authority.

It began with the blog “influence” lists or rankings based on faulty metrics (like the Power150 or Edelman’s social media index). Things aren’t any better today I’m sorry to say.

They’re worse.

I came across an article this morning on Twitter that discussed how companies are overvaluing Facebook “likes.” And I agree with that completely.

What is a “Like” Anyway?

In the end a “like” doesn’t equal a customer. It doesn’t even mean you have a lead. You can “like” a lot of things you can’t afford for example. It doesn’t mean you’re in the market for it. You could “like” a website after reading one good article and still never see enough value in it to go back. In the end, a “like” means very little.

A “like” is just another way of whipping out your trusty litter ruler to see who’s bigger than whom, and for friends or followers, a “like” is a near zero-effort activity.

It’s not new. It’s the same thing we see with Twitter spammers — the type who follow thousands of people they know they can’t realistically follow because they’re hoping for automatic follow-backs as if caring about what someone has to say should be the result of a reflex.

Rather, it’s all about who appears to have more friends, fans, followers, or whatever you want to call them today — who has the biggest list. And in the end, it doesn’t matter.

Large generic groups of people “liking” you or “following” you means very little. Building a following of a smaller group of people — but with a genuine and regular interest in what you have to say, sell, or do — will benefit you more.

Somewhere in this social media mix we lost the concept of targeting. 

Popularity Alone Isn’t Social Proof

At this point I’m little more than embarrassed for the “social media professionals” who participate in these popularity contests or convince their clients that they should care about them. They’re still missing the mark.

In the end, who benefits from the hype around these popularity-based lists and emphasis on vanity metrics such as “likes?”

The social networks being promoted for starters.

Perhaps more important, those who benefit are the sites sharing these ranking lists in the first place. After all, if you can’t get attention by being a legitimate authority, there’s always linkbait. And let’s not forget all the unqualified social media consultants gaming clients who don’t know any better for an easy buck.

Popularity only matters as social proof if it comes with true influence. But the two are not one and the same. It’s time the PR community stopped confusing the two.

If you want attention, via social media or elsewhere, earn it for the right reasons. Don’t get caught up in meaningless metrics. Looking like a big deal is fun and all. But being a trusted source and someone people actually want to do business with is even better. That’s where real influence comes from.

Jenn Mattern is the owner of 3 Beat Media, a 3-prong business where she offers consulting and freelance writing services (predominantly for small and mid-sized online businesses and creative professionals). Through this business, she also runs a variety of online properties and manages a small publishing brand.

Jenn has over 20 years' experience in PR and marketing, specializing in digital PR and new media (blogging, social media, SEO, thought leadership publication, and related areas). She also has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor, with 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing / development experience.

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8 thoughts on “Social Media Continues to Miss the Mark: The Overemphasis on Popularity”

  1. Very true. I run social media for an organization I’m involved with, and I’ve noticed most of our Twitter followers are people & organizations in our industry looking for retweets or trying to drive up their own numbers.

  2. An excellent post! As a publicist, I’ve often hesitated to advise clients to build strategies based on increasing “likes” or “fans” but couldn’t articulate why. Now you’ve done so for me. And funny, but I’d been thinking about this very topic lately in the context of my 11 year-old son and the “popularity” issues in middle-school. Thanks for adding fodder: I may just link to this post at some point soon!

  3. Jenn, I agree. The metrics around social media are not always great indicators but maybe they’ve become so popular simply for the sake of reporting. When you need to benchmark and analyze competitors, it’s much easier to look at top-level metrics (followers, fans, etc.) and report “popularity” than dig into influence and engagement metrics… some parallels can be drawn with SEO as well… in general, people are more interested in page views and uniques, than digging into bounce rates and average time on site (metrics that are not very sexy).

    • The main problem is that these metrics are used as little more than linkbait by supposed social media professionals — giving businesses a false sense of their value. They do it in part to build hype around social media in general and because popularity metrics can be easily manipulated. It’s something many of them do for clients, and hyping up the false value validates their professional existence. Yes, in that sense it’s similar to SEO folks especially earlier in the game. But building an industry on smoke and mirrors is foolish, and if anything social media folks should have learned that from SEOs example rather than repeating it.

      As for influence, it’s immeasurable. It will never be possible to truly measure it, and social media folks need to stop pretending that they can. You cannot know every reader’s or visitor’s opinion on an issue and how you’ve changed or reinforced it. That’s influence. You won’t ever be able to see every action people take as a result of you. That’s influence. Instead they look at retweets and links and likes — all things that require very little effort, and therefore little to no actual influence. And not measuring influence is fine. But they need to stop blatantly lying to clients and the public about what they’re measuring — popularity masked as so-called influence, with no acknowledgement of the fact that almost every single popularity metric around can (and is) heavily manipulated. Sexy or not, lying is never acceptable.

  4. Your site is fantastic! When I first got into social media I was at a job (buyers agent for a real estate broker) where suddenly it became a requirement that I handle the social media and seo our company site. I had never done it before and read everything I could on the subject, opened up a few blogs and an account on every social media venue there was to test the waters. I followed all the advice and I have to say that now, 5 years after I first started my “experiment” I realized that about 80% of the advice from so-called social media “experts” amounted to no more than time wasting garbage, and sadly business people are eating it up! Now I am opening my own business and am trying to focus on what’s real…like the ease of use, quality and content of my site, asking whether the social media I am using is manageable in the time I have to give to it (i.e. can I be consistent)…and the quest for that lead me here because sorting out fact from fiction when it comes to social media online is getting harder and harder.

    • I agree with you completely. Most “experts” are way off-base on a lot of issues. Either they’ve never seen success over the popularity numbers, so that’s what they focus on (which is utter bullshit), or they’ve found real success with a client or two and then they become evangelists for the tools that worked for them and act like they should be used in a similar way by everyone else (also utter bullshit). And a lot of it is just echoing something someone read, heard, saw, etc. rather than being useful or in any way original. But as bad as it is in social media, it’s much moreso in the SEO world. I’m glad to hear that you saw through a lot of it, and very sorry they wasted so much time until that happened.

      It sounds like you have a good plan in place now — finding what works for you, making choices based on the time you can actually devote to doing it “right,” and emphasizing quality and value to your customers, readers, etc. I wish more people would follow suit!


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