This one weird trick will make social media experts hate you!

There is a phrase in science and statistics which goes like this: “Correlation does not imply causation“. It’s used to point out false conclusions that are attractive because they show some connection, but are not actually valid or statistically meaningful. Frequently, people who are trying to build some reach in social media fall prey to this common fallacy. Here’s what they think:

“Person X was capable of building a large audience and making sales, therefore if I build a large audience, I will make more sales!”

On its surface, that’s a very attractive proposition. If more people hear your pitch, then more people are going to buy. Simple, right?

Except, we’ve already missed where we went wrong. The correlation/causation fallacy comes into play here because of the assumption that having a larger audience means that more people hear your pitch. Looking at just about every single social network out there, we see that this assumption holds no water at all.

On Facebook, for example, artificially reduced reach is a business function, and without paying to boost your posts, you’re reliant solely on Facebook’s algorithms and the reaction of the first couple of people shown your content to decide if you get seen at all. You may spend considerable time and resources building an audience there who never hears you at all.

On Google+, spammy circle sharing practices have led to a rise in inflated audience counts with a matching rise in notification spam; when 80% of your followers come from marketing based tactics, it’s no surprise at all that the outcome of following such tactics is a stream flooded with marketing, and a social network that’s barely usable. Artificially inflated follower counts built without relevancy on a topically based network means that the people who DO see your pitch aren’t even necessarily potential customers.

What if I told you that it’s not about how many people are following you, but WHO your followers are?

If you recall, we started at the beginning by talking about folks who want to make more sales. If you are maintaining a brand presence in social media, even if it’s a personal brand, that has to be something that you don’t lose focus on: the investment in time you spend on your social channels is intended to return dividends by increasing your revenue. If it’s not doing that, then it’s not worth the time you’re spending on it. The only people who care about audience size without any concern for social engagement are people selling social media audience building services. With that in mind, there are only two segments of your audience that you really need to be focused on growing: potential clients, and potential partners.

The first is a no-brainer: you’re hoping potential clients see you in social media, and connect with you via those channels. If you have a smart social media strategy, you may even funnel your sales flow through social media intentionally, implementing what Daniel Priestley calls an “11 touch plan”, where you don’t engage with potential clients until you’ve had the chance to build a relationship with them outside of a sales pitch. Gaining greater exposure to potential clients through social media means that they get to know who they’re working with before they ever sign a contract.

The second often gets missed. Building partnerships in social media means building relationships with like minded folks whose message you agree with, and who are willing to share your content when they like it, or collaborate on projects with you. Building quality partnerships is more important than any individual metric out there. 

Looking at my own following on Google+, I see that my top five followers by audience count mean that if all five of them decided to reshare something I posted, I’ve instantly been exposed to an audience of nearly 5 million people. Let me repeat that for you: 5 of my followers can expose my content to 5 million people. When you consider that, it suddenly makes much more sense that Matt Mullenweg advised that you should only be blogging for two people:

“The antidote I’ve found for this is to write for only two people. First, write for yourself, both your present self whose thinking will be clarified by distilling an idea through writing and editing, and your future self who will be able to look back on these words and be reminded of the context in which they were written.

Second, write for a single person who you have in mind as the perfect person to read what you write, almost like a letter, even if they never will, or a person who you’re sure will read it because of a connection you have to them (hi Mom!). Even on my moblog I have a frequent commenter who I’ll often keep in mind when posting a photo, curious to see her reaction.”

When you create and share helpful content with key partners in mind, you’re able to punch outside your weight class, metaphorically. A recent post on social media gurus only saw moderate views until a few folks with much larger audience counts than mine shared it around. You can see in the comment threads there which shares generated the most conversation.

If you’ve followed along so far, you should get it by this point: a small number of quality followers effectively results in greater reach than a substantially larger number of low quality followers. Additionally, when high quality followers share your content, it adds the social equity of their endorsement to your content, doubling up the value of the share.

So, how do I get high quality followers?

First, you create high quality content. Sorry, no shortcuts there. If you’re not creating your own quality content, even if it’s simply insightful analysis of someone else’s content, then there’s just no reason to pay attention to you at all.

Second, you build relationships with people you follow who have the characteristics you’re looking for in a potential social media partner. Find the people in your niche who wield influence. Engage in their conversation. Reference your own work when appropriate. Offer and invite, WHEN APPROPRIATE, and without pestering. More than anything, build relationships the old fashioned way…by chatting, making friends, and adding value to their conversation. Wade Harman talks about the trust factor in what he calls “relationship marketing” here:

The moral of the story is this: if you’re looking to build REAL relationships in social media that lead to sales, the metric that’s important to you isn’t audience size, it’s audience quality. Bigger may be better in the seedier sides of the internet, but when it comes to measuring your message’s reach, it’s barely relevant at all.