Note: Careful (or at least weekend) readers of this space will remember that I was several hours late for my talk at American University’s Social Learning Summit because I got on the wrong train. AU nicely agreed to let me give my speech anyway, at the end of the day, in shortened form. That speech was certainly better, because it was shorter; but here’s the full version:
Thanks to Melanie and AU for having me, and thank you all for coming. My name is Mark Coatney, and I’m the Director of Media Outreach at Tumblr. I’m a former journalist for Time magazine and Newsweek, and I’m here today to talk to you about social networks and scale.
I’ll start with the disclaimer that, as a former word person, my visuals here will, for the most part, be completely uninteresting. This will actually be to your benefit, because you can all look at your phones while listening to me!
I’m all about creating efficiencies via the second-screen experience.
So, scale. As humans were incredibly bad at visualizing big numbers. Yet they’re something we casually throw out all the time. This is especially true when we’re assessing our impact on social media.
For example, we often talk about someone who has a million followers on Twitter. If you are any level of celebrity at all, it’s almost embarrassing today if you don’t have a million followers. Same if you’re running a social media account for a big brand. Certainly, it’s assumed that you’re doing something wrong if you aren’t pulling at least high six-figures.
So let say you really do have a million human beings hanging on your every word. Seems only fair we should acknowledge them, no? I mean at the very least say their names; they deserve that much.
So lets do a roll call. Assume that we can say an average of 25 names per minute. At that rate, how long will it take us to do right by all our one million followers? Anyone?
Four weeks, nonstop, to devote a little more than two seconds to each follower.
Or look at something that for me is a little closer to home. There are currently more than 100 million blogs on Tumblr. I’d like to know who these people are, for a lot of reasons, including that part of my job is to know as much as possible about what people are doing on Tumblr.
So say I give each one of them only five seconds each—seems little enough, right? Just five seconds of my time to get a sense of what this blog is. How long will this take me?
Almost 16 years.
So, I’ll get back to you in 2029 with a full report on that.
In the meantime, there are, of course, caveats to these numbers. As Anil Dash argued a few years ago, you don’t really have a million Twitter followers (now of course, you probably do, but his larger point, that there’s a lot of noise in social media following numbers, still stands). Many of the accounts that follow you are spam, or people who followed a long time ago and never log in. Or they’re cats.
Still, if you’re, say, Justin Bieber. Even if, as was recently reported, more than half of your 37 million Twitter followers are fake accounts, that’s still 17 million or so actual people who are in theory logged in and hanging on your every character. But at that scale, individual interactions tend to become meaningless.
The questions we have to ask in evaluating our social media impact are, “are they real people?” and “what are they, and you, getting out of the experience?”
I’ll give you an analogy from my former life in the magazine world.
One of the revolutions of the past 10 years has been in how our assumptions about print have supposedly refuted by the hard data the Web provides. Have you heard of a thing called the passalong rate? It was the assumption magazines used to make about how many people were reading (as opposed to number of copies sold) their magazines. The theory was, for every on printed copy sold, the magazine was actually passed around to four people, all of whom of course read every story and ad on every page.
Time magazine used to say 20 million people a week read their magazine cover to cover, and who could say they were wrong? But on the Web, you can measure that, and that’s one reason you get, as they say, digital dimes to analog dollars.
Strangely, though, in social media we don’t do that. We simply toss out “I have 700K fans on Facebook!” And we assume that, much like the passalong rate, all 700K of these people are actively taking in the message we want them to receive.
But, much like that passalong rate, a follower count is simply a nice big number that sounds impressive but actually may tell you very little. Further, a focus on acquiring a big number blinds us from the purpose of why we want to do this in the first place: Because we want to communicate with an actual person.
If all social media becomes is simply another form of mass media, then social media has failed. The promise of social media is not “I can reach a million people,” but “10,000 people had a meaningful, measurable interaction with my publication, with my company, with me.
So my mission here today is to not only give you a few strategies I’ve developed in trying to make social media interactions as meaningful as possible, but, fundamentally, to tell you that by far the most important measure here is quality of interaction, not quantity, and to make that case I’d like to tell a short story about my own experience.
The whole the reason I’m standing here today is that 19 years ago someone at a big media company answered an email from a reader. This would never happen today, and this is progress.
To explain: In 1994, right out of college, I was in working for a Kansas City alt-weekly, and I didn’t have a computer. So I’d write my articles on a computer in the University of Kansas computer lab, on their big mainframe computer that was supposed to be curing cancer or something, and I hijacked it to write my hard-hitting reporting on business-signage variances.
So I’d be there at 2 am, putting off writing, and one of the guys there showed me Mosaic, which was pretty much the first graphical Web browser, and one of the first Websites I looked at was the one for Time magazine. And, of course, one of the first things I saw on that Website was a typo in the first headline.
So I clicked on the email link, and mailed off a note to the editor that said, I’m sure, something snarky about the typo. And the editor emailed me back. We started a correspondence, and a few months later the editor, Janice Castro, who’s now a prof at Northwestern, offered me a job at Time’s Website. So the whole reason I had a 15-year career in journalism, the whole reason I’m here today, is because someone answered an email from a stranger.
Again, remember, this does not happen today. I am certain that if you emailed any media company’s Website right now, at best you’d get an autoresponse. But because this was 1994, when there were like 100 people in the world looking at time.com, and the Time editors there were so shocked to hear from anyone that they actually responded.
But! There is a way that this happens, every day, and at a much more sustainable scale. And that’s via what we call social media.
Because what are Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, LInkedin etc., but venues for scaleable interactions? I can Tweet about something that Audi said, I can reblog a post from the New York Times. And, crucially, the New York Times can do the same thing for something I’ve posted.
When I used to hire writers, one thing that was always frustrating to me was that a writer’s clips don’t always give you a good understanding of a writer’s ability. Because published clips are (or at least used to be) the product of a layers of polishing by editors. When I started at Time every piece was edited by three people (Editor, Senior Editor, Top Editor), put through fact checking and copy edit and then read one last time before it was sent out the door. This is great for the magazine, but not so great if you’re trying to get a sense of whether the person whose clips you hold can actually write.
But because we are all unfiltered publishers now, with our Tweets and Facebook status updates, our Pinterest pins and Tumblr blog posts, it’s so much easier to get a real idea of the individual making these things.
This is, of course, both a feature and a bug. Because we can be constantly evaluated for the things we say on social platforms, we have to maintaing awareness of this. On the social space now, we must, as they say in Glengarry Glenn Ross, always be closing.
In 2006, when I went to Newsweek, one of the first things I was required to do was to put a disclaimer on my blog that these posts were my own, and did not necessarily represent the views of my employer. In those days, which was not that long ago, a personal editorial presence on the Web was seen as something dubious, a thing that you did with the understanding that if you did something your boss didn’t like, you would most likely be fired.
That was just a few years ago. This is Today: Some of you here will be entering the job market soon, and if you’re going into journalism, what’s one of the most common requirements you’ll see in a job listing? And it’s not “must be willing to work 24/7 for little money and no job security” (because at this point that’s understood). It’s “must have a strong social media presence.”
So think about that for a minute. In seven years we’ve gone from “If you talk to people outside of our space we may fire you” to “if you don’t bring your own network of people into our space, we won’t hire you.” That’s a vast change, and it speaks volumes about the nature of journalism in a social media age.
Again, the promise of social media is fulfilled not when we tell ourselves that we’ve reached a lot of people, but when one person does something that shows that we actually did. The metric that becomes important when everyone has mass followers isn’t how many but how well.
Not “do I have you” but “do I have your attention?”
Not “did I put this thing I did in front of you”, but “did you really see it?”
Not “do I do something you follow” but “do I do something you love?”
Now “love” is a squishy metric to put it mildly. But I would suggest to you that it the absolutely essential piece to doing social media well. Because the primary value of any network is the share, and the primary impetus for anyone to share is love.
Not, you know, eros, or any of those things, for sure—though, you know, sexting. But I’m talking in sense of the things we all have that give us joy, the things that make us say “this is so cool, this is so amazing, I want to share it with others.” And in sharing some of that cool thing becomes a part of our own identity.
When I talk to publishers about how to use Tumblr effectively, I say the primary thing you should be thinking about is “what will make someone think this is so cool, so beautiful, so smart, that I want to reblog it to my own Tumblr blog, and this be seen as more cool, beautiful, smart myself.” Do the thing that someone loves, and they will do the work of showing it to everyone else.
Given that, then, the key task is figuring out “What can I do on these social networks that someone will love?” Here are a few of the things that have worked for me.
1) Do great, original things. Be honest about how great and original they are. One thing that I’ve always found when I worked in media companies is that we consistently overvalued our product to ourselves. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had that were some variation of “Let’s put all the outtakes from our reporter’s work online and offer it up as premium content!”
Because, no, the reason it didn’t run in the first place is that it wasn’t good enough.
Pay attention to what your competitors are doing, and if it’s better than what you’re doing, congratulate them by mentioning that on your social channels, and then move on to finding the things that you alone do better than anyone else.
If the primary value of a social network is the share, the atomic unit of that network is the unique item. Be the seed that launches thousands of conversations—the genius of well-designed social networks is that the networks are designed to lead all credit back to you. Make it easy for people to share and remix the things you do on your terms, and don’t hold them all hostage to your monetization strategy. If people love your stuff they’re going to talk about it anyway, so you might as well guide that conversation. If people don’t love your stuff, you’ve got bigger problems.
2) Find your community. Remember that it’s better to be great on one than mediocre on 10. From my own experience: The big reason I was successful for Newsweek on Tumblr is that format and that community resonated with me. But I was terrible for Newsweek on Facebook. I could never get my head around how a brand could be successful there. This in no way means I think brands can’t be successful on Facebook; there are many great brands that are. But it means that I didn’t get Facebook for Newsweek, and Newsweek needed to have someone there who did, posting on their behalf.
This is, of course, if you think your brand resonates there. Hearst, for instance, reports great success with Pinterest, because they’ve found that their format resonates with the community there. Find the people in your organization who are native users of a platform (because every social network is unique, with its own language and culture) and give them the authority to translate what you do into that social network.
3) Be a Participant. Not just a listener. How many of you followed Barack Obama’s great Tumblr in the last campaign? A comparison between the success of their Tumblr vs. the Romney campaign is instructive.
If you looked at a typical post from the Obama Tumblr, you’d typically see hundreds, if not thousands, of interactions with the community. For the Romney campaign, interactions would be in the tens or hundreds.
What was the key difference? The Obama Tumblr understood Tumblr culture, and actively participated in it. They knew what jokes were good on Tumblr; they reblogged things that other Tumblr users said about the campaign, they engaged in GIF wars.
The key difference is that great social media presence to me is not a story that you tell about yourself. It’s a story told with your audience, but about the things you hold in common. When the Barack Obama Tumblr engages in a GIF war, the author of those posts wasn’t just promoting Obama; she was saying “Obama’s campaign knows you, and understands you.” And that’s a powerful connection.
In all of this, be mindful of the nature of large networks. Contrary to what Malcolm Gladwell would say, what people actually find on large social networks is that there aren’t just a few prime influencers that, if you reach them, will transmit your message to everyone else. There are, however, lots of people with smaller influence, and a great way to get a rough idea of your network is to pay attention to these folks.
I’d like to close with a picture, to give you all a break from all these words.
What this graphic shows is a typical “Reblog Tree” from a single Tumblr post. The larger the circle, the more posts reblog from that reblogger. What’s interesting about this is that you’ll see that this post has 80K reblogs—and more than half of them came from more than 9 generations removed from the source posts.
Finally, remember that the greatest off all these is love. Do something that people love so much they produces a direct action—a reblog, a retweet, a like, a pin—and each one of those little successes will tell you far more than a single big number ever will.
Thanks and best.
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