Stop measuring audience in social media

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Have you heard any of these questions lately:

What’s the value of a Facebook fan?
What’s the value of a Twitter follower?
What’s the value of an email subscriber?

I know I certainly have, and these are the wrong questions to be asking. Why? They assume that all people are the same. Let’s instead crib from Batman:

It’s not who I am underneath, but what I *do* that defines me.

There are, broadly speaking, two types of audience members: active and passive. Active members read your newsletters. They click on your tweets. They like your status updates on Facebook. They share with their networks. They read and forward your emails. They buy your products or services. They recommend you to other people.

Passive members… do nothing.

Here’s an example. I have, at the time of this writing, almost 49,000 followers. Awesome, right? I must be a social media success story. Not so fast. If I segment out the traffic on my website using Google Analytics’ Advanced Segments and ask me to show number of absolute unique visitors in the last 30 days from all things Twitter, the true number of followers I actually have that did the bare minimum of clicking on one link to my site in a month is:

Visitors Overview - Google Analytics

1,293. That’s how many followers I have that actually showed up in the last month. That’s a pretty far cry from 49,000. Thankfully, there’s no cost to having the other 47,000+ in my network, but they’re basically dead weight that are providing nothing at all. It’s not like I’m asking them to buy a car or something, just click once on one link in 30 days in order to show up in the chart above.

Here’s another slice of life, my email list. Over 12,000 people subscribed. Great success story on the surface, but if we dig a little deeper…

Publicaster: Segmentation Manager

Yep, less than half opened or clicked on ANYTHING in the last year. The rest of the list is dead weight, and I can and should just ditch ’em since most email companies charge based on the number of emails sent.

If you’re trying to figure out the value of a person in your audience, you’re barking up the wrong tree. A person in and of themselves has no value until they actually do something, anything, to show that you have some level of engagement with them. Active members of your audience have value. Passive members do not. Start by figuring out how many active members you have, and you will have a much better idea of how your social media efforts are actually performing.

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18 responses to “Stop measuring audience in social media”

  1. Oz du Soleil Avatar
    Oz du Soleil

    I like this article a lot! May I add that the dead weight does cost?

    1. Facebook limits the amount of friends and followers. A person can max out and no one else can get in.
    2. It costs in credibility. I’m finding more and more so-called experts who boast massive numbers, and then they admit no one is buying their stuff.

    Question: what would you say to this response? “It’s all a numbers game. If it took Christopher Penn 49,000 followers to get 1300 active participants, well 49K is the number to shot for. So, I’m gonna get busy and find another 48,500 folks.”

  2. It’s depressing…but true! Do you using a rating system of any kind to measure the value of the people who do interact with you? Perhaps base a value on the number of interactions from a specific person or the time/money investment of those interactions?

  3. Great point, Christopher. Though the numbers seem attractive from the outside looking in, it’s all about engagement. If you have 100 people who actively engage and are passionate about your content, it always beats 1,000 passive. And one of those 100 people could help you out in HUGE ways that you could never predict. Statistics are hopeless in these situations. 🙂

    Josh Lipovetsky

    1. Oz du Soleil Avatar
      Oz du Soleil

      Statistics aren’t hopeless. Statistics are critical because that’s what provides the window to the inner workings.

      1. 100% agree with you Oz! Statistics definitely can help provide some direction and support in making a decision. 

  4. so here is a rough back of the envelope calculation Chris, bear with me.

    Let’s take the most recent splendid post by Chris Brogan “97”.

    At the time of writing Topsy had a count of 240 posts about it and based on his follower count on twitter of nearly 200,000 followers, that works out at 0.01% mention to follower rate after some 6 hours.

    Even big names have to work mega hard in the attention deficit age and in the year many think we are heading for some kind of saturation breakdown I certainly see it gets harder as everyone becomes a publisher, everywhere. Sure, Chris B. and you indeed pay great store to email subscribers where I’m sure the numbers are stronger (wouldn’t it be cool if you got others in your league to share similar GA rates?) but the crux of this and to anyone in the game or business of social, is that it’s no stroll in the park.

    1. Oz du Soleil Avatar
      Oz du Soleil

      I don’t completely follow what you’re saying here. But one thing resonates with me: everyone had become a publisher, everywhere … especially about how to master social media. 

      Sometimes it feels like the conversation loses perspective. I know people who are quite wealthy and they don’t talk about driving traffic, tweeting, etc. They’re out meeting clients, making deals and shooting the bull with their less-than-200 Facebook friends. 

      And then there are those who pay someone on Fiverr to get them 1000 new followers, and those new followers don’t impact anything.

      1. “..making deals with their less than 200..” you said it Ozu exactly. You don’t need another subscriber/follower whatever, you’re often better off cultivating the ones you have. No one has a traffic problem, everyone has a conversion challenge.

  5. Thanks for this superb
    article Christopher. I really enjoyed reading your article. And you’re right
    that it’s not always that if there is good no. of followers on twitter then
    they’ll be following you on your website also. One thing I learned before I
    became a bestselling author and long before Inc Magazine voted my company as
    one of the fastest growing companies is that social networking is a good way on
    increasing traffic but we can’t depend totally on it. 

  6.  Avatar

    This is why it’s worth it to follow you on Twitter. Thanks for the insight.

  7. I don’t think it’s so black and white. There are people whose tweets I see often. Perhaps I saw the person speak or read his book and now I’m paying attention. I don’t engage with them, click through or RT except rarely but I notice and sometimes I’m just reading a quote. I’m in the audience but that person has no way of knowing that I am aware often; that I am reading some of what that person has written and on some level I am of value to that person. I am more likely to click through to a link in the future than to someone I’m essentially blind to. That person is on my radar.

  8. Hi Christopher, 

    Sadly people think that traffic equals to customers, but that is not the case.  Even if we bring in a thousand of visitors a day, if we do not convert any of them into customers or buyers we are still go out of business. Let’s put in mind that no matter how much traffic we get to our sites, our efforts will be wasted unless we turn those visitors into paying customers.  

    Thanks for sharing, 


  9. Awesome points to know Chris. Thanks! 🙂

  10. Wonderful insight into why many people falsely believe social media doesn’t work for B2B. They are tracking the wrong metrics.

  11. The other thing about the Twitter stats you cite is that — if I understand this correctly — is that 1,293 unique people were referred to your site by Twitter. That doesn’t mean they were your followers. In reality, probably half or so are your followers. I’m sure there are studies done on this, but if the retweet has any value, I’d hope a decent chunk of those clicks are from people who weren’t following you at all.

    So that’s a pick me up, right?

  12. Many people just want followers for the sake of, well, having followers. It makes their brand look bigger than they appear. If someone was looking up a company to do business with and they compared twitter followers, they may think the company with more followers is “bigger” even though, like you said, many of those followers are dead weight and don’t even interact.

  13. Southern Curmudgeon Avatar
    Southern Curmudgeon

    Let’s look at these numbers another way. Of 49,000 followers only 1,293 clicked through one time, leaving 47,707 people you consider deadweight. It may just be that you have nothing of value to offer to those 47,707. Perhaps you are the deadweight to those 47,707 people. Instead of “dropping them” you should consider ways to make yourself valuable to those people.


    And as you say; “If you’re trying to figure out the value of a person in your audience, you’re barking up the wrong tree. A person in and of themselves has no value until they actually do something…” 

    It would appear that you have no value in and of yourself to those 47,707. Perhaps you should rethink your strategy and consider making yourself more valuable to them instead of viewing them as “cash cows” to milk within seconds of encountering your site.

  14. Very good post.  The problem is that most marketing/communication people like simple, easy numbers — especially big ones when, in reality, life’s much more complex.  These numbers can be very misleading if used incorrectly, which they usually are. 

    Some of the most common questions we’re asked by clients is “how much coverage do we get on the web”, how many followers do we have, etc, etc?  Our answer is not only “who knows” but also “who cares”?!  What DOES matter is how many consumers saw, read and reacted, for instance by searching on Google, as a result of the web coverage, or the tweets.

    This can be difficult for clients at first but we persevere and they soon get it.  That’s when marketing activities really start to generate results.

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