A friend of mine, whose fairly young blog has been quite popular, had one thing to say about building an online network: “In no way does the 1980s adage, ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy work.” Really? Even when a dozen Tweeps follow you before you send a single Tweet? When it seems everyone from rescue dogs to Smurfette have thousands of friends on Facebook?
'Fraid so. Since there's usually a lengthy queue of substitutes to one's blog, Facebook page, YouTube site, and Twitter feed at any given time, we really have to hustle ourselves into the interweb and let people know we exist-- and then prove that our site is worth spending time on again and again. Communicating is speedier than ever, but holding one’s attention a laborious process (sometimes I wonder which decade I would prefer as a marketer).
Reaching “critical mass” in your social media page's readership (and we'll discuss numbers in Part II) may trim down the labor needed to advertise your online presence. Theoretically, once your page develops a certain volume of following, the rate of acquisition develops its own self-sustaining momentum, and traffic growth requires less and less manual effort (that is, diminishing marginal returns to effort for maintaining the status quo, not strengthening your competitive advantage). Reaching critical mass can be expedited by employing a strong SMO, or search media optimization (similar to search engine optimization, but with social media channels and audience affection rather than search engines and algorithm methodology).
I didn't consider this critical mass idea to be terribly revolutionary until said friend pointed me toward these supporting principles. The following is not all-inclusive, but has helped develop my thinking about how an effective SMO strategy operates with respect to critical mass.
Metcalfe’s Law. The value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system—i.e. your network is only as powerful as its number of users—and more accurately, the number of connection nodes which communicate with each other. For an interesting read on the economics of Metcalfe’s Law, check out this Microsoft Academic Research paper.
Zipf’s Law. Named after Harvard linguistics professor George Zipf, this suggests that in a given body of text there will be a few words used frequently and a large number of words used infrequently. The popularity of a website or blog, for example, follows a predictable distribution proportional to the popularity of all the websites and blogs.
Long Tail. A niche marketing strategy coined by Clay Shirky, it asserts that a free market generally follows a distribution that favors the most popular 20% of retail items.
So, for example, your common video store would offer 20% of all movies (more or less?), which are the blockbusters of now and hot sellers of yesterday, since a larger inventory filled with the vast number of niche flicks would collect dust and take up valuable floor space. However, Netflix, for example, has succeeded in profiting off the other 80% of titles. Netflix doesn't have the same stocking costs, and thus the same limited offering. The same is true for blogs, websites, and social media pages- you can have a surprising amount of influence regardless of not being in the Top 10 This N' That. As same friend (also a documentarian) noted, "thanks to Netflix, there are a whole lot of documentaries that are actually getting seen – and changing people’s minds – because someone believed in the long tail."
For an individual account of the value of information tools and social media on the above, see “how RSS thickened my long tail.”
Of course, like everything worth pursuing, critical mass is a function of multiple variables—content quality, content frequency, target audience, reach, creative appeal, and a dash of luck. The greatest factor of all is still the creation and maintenance of an infrastructure of true engagement-- one built with these principles in mind. Part II will describe the setup of one possible social media infrastructure that can help your online sites gain traction and grow their own legs. Stay tuned!