It begins so seductively…“GAIN NEW FOLLOWERS AND DRIVE TRAFFIC TODAY!” (OK, that may not be seductive to everyone, but when you’re a small business or startup looking for exactly those things, it’s terribly seductive). So, you browse their profile, and “Holy crap, this dude/dudette has over a million followers, it must be legit!” And suddenly, you’re sucked in. You’re putting your name in the social media equivalent of chain letters, and employing terribly hacky methods attempting to artificially inflate your growth. Hey, it worked for the guru, it must work for you too! And at first, it does!
Your follower counts start jumping, and you pour even more effort into joining every network, implementing every strategy, until one day, you realize that you value that notification icon less and less, because it’s rarely something interesting, and more often just another “strategy post” notification. Inevitably, the friends you made online engage with you less and less, and for all your efforts, you’ve doubled your audience size while reducing your actual human interaction to damn near zero. What happened? You let an “expert” ruin your social media experience.
Don’t feel bad, it happens to a lot of people. It happened to me on MySpace, and before I saw the pattern repeating, it started to happen to me on Facebook. It always seems like such a simple formula, right? Doesn’t more followers equals more engagement, traffic, and sales? Well, no, or at least, not exactly. The problem with many of these folks is that your goals and their goals are not in any way aligned. For them, having a massive following online is an end game; if they can show a large audience, that presumably acts as a demonstration of their value, and is a direct sales channel. For them, buying another ten thousand fans on Twitter is a comparable expense to you buying an ad for your product or services: the larger their number, the larger their perceived value. In fact, the reason they’re driven to “help” you with their hyper-growth techniques is the same reason that Amway reps are driven to help you “build your downline”": you’re part of the product they’re offering.
But, is having a large audience an end game for you? I’m guessing not. Realistically, if you’re reading this, you’re more interested in using social media effectively to make sales, find new partners and opportunities, and actually engage with your audience. You want to share your knowledge, gain more, and find people of similar interests. If so, then ask yourself a question:
Do you want to have an audience of a million people who ignore everything you say that isn’t about how to get an audience of a million people?
If you said yes, congratulations! You’re a Social Media “Expert”! If instead, you actually want an audience that’s interested in you, your product, or your service, then you need to avoid these people and their “systems” like the plague. Real fans come from you putting a real message out there, not participating in mass forward and link share schemes, and real fans are actually interested in what you’re sharing.
The difference between real fans and contrived social media follows is why I can have as many plusses, likes, comments, and shares on a post as someone with twenty times my audience size; the people who follow me are, for the most part, actually interested in what I have to say.
Here are a few signs that the feel good “let’s all help each other grow!” program that you’re about to participate in is social media expertise gone wrong:
1. The “system” focuses on increasing raw number of followers with zero interest in topical relevance.
Did someone add you to a Twitter share list hash tagged with your area of expertise? Awesome! Get added to a copy and paste list of people you’ve never heard of and share nothing in common with? Not awesome! Your ability to engage with your audience is directly related to how many common interests you share. An audience with no common interests is going to mute you.
2. It’s “pay to play”.
Sometimes the cost is actual cash money, and sometimes the cost is an action: adding their copypasta to your blog, resharing their spammy content, etc. If the sales pitch is “You can be in the circle I share if you share it too!”, it should set off alarms about the value of being in that group:
3. If questioned about the value, said social media “experts” respond with anger instead of answers.
I’ve met plenty of folks in social media who work in some sort of marketing/SEO/social media/PR role, and many of them are exceedingly awesome people who take quite a bit of time to educate and answer questions. Typically, these folks are also the ones pushing the value of actual human conversation online, a topic I’ve spoken about many times. Mark Traphagen, Eli Fennell, and Eric Enge have all taken the time to respond to my questions, and provided detailed answers about various technical topics related to their expertise. On the other hand, those of us who have been online for a while can remember countless times when someone called out for spammy tactics responds with defensive anger, deletion of your comments, and outright blocking.
Look, the fact is, while social media strategies are based on observation and human psychology principles, the strategies themselves are generally more working theories than hard science; social media is a moving target, so it’s exceedingly difficult to establish hard “laws” that are good for any more than a year or two. Sometimes they need to be questioned and examined, and the people who really are at the top of the game in their industry will welcome that, because they know that the exploration of the topic in conversation adds value to their overall strategy, both by testing out their theories, and by potentially pointing out previously unnoticed weaknesses. Much the same way I publish code samples for review by other developers, those who specialize in conversation online should be open and transparent about their ideas and practices, and foster a conversation about them.
Your social media audience is your chance to share with the world the things you think are important, and believe in. Don’t build an audience that doesn’t care about anything you have to say. While it’s tempting to follow the “growth rush” of these pseudo-experts, I promise you there’s nothing more crushing than 100,000 people completely ignoring everything you post. Audience counts and fan following are the result of good content, not the goal. Unless it’s your intention to quit your day job and become a social media “expert”, don’t waste any more time listening to the ones trying to inflate their own numbers at the expense of your online conversation.