What if we’re doing it all wrong?
This is a story about damned lies and social media statistics.
It’s 2004. I’ve just opened up an account at a website called 20six.co.uk (don’t go looking for it, it’s long gone), which informs me I now have my own “blog”. I click boxes, I mess around with text, marvelling at how easy it is to change normal letters into bold and italics. I learn how to make a hyperlink (“http://mikeisawesomeatblogging.com”).
But nerve-wracking. Truly this is new-age witchery. I live in a rural area of England, untouched by the 20th Century, only lightly brushed by the Renaissance. Go back 10 years and I could have been burned at the stake for messing with this stuff. There is Power here and it scares me.
But mainly, I’m scared by the button marked “Publish.”
Here’s what would happen: I’d rattle something out excitedly, bleeding all over the screen in a welter of clueless enthusiasm, and then I’d mash that button. With a futuristic whooshing sound, my post would be transmitted out in all directions. Switchboards around the world would buzz into life, red telephones would warble, klaxons would howl. Armed troops would slide down poles and leap into the back of trucks; submarines would burst to the surface of every ocean and scour the airwaves for orders; people would stop in the street, furrowing their brows and looking into the sky, dimly aware in their lizard brains that something Incredibly Important had just happened….
And the world would be changed forever.
And then a little while later, when my ideas had officially been deemed too radical for public consumption, Black Ops units would burst into my home and drag me away by my Adidas tracksuit bottoms.
Here, 10 years and a succession of blogging platforms later, I still feel an echo of this. It’s not ego or megalomania (I think). It’s not delusion. It’s just the primal thrill of pushing your deepest thoughts out into the world – even though you know there’s a really good chance that nobody is listening right now.
And that feeling of potential insignificance used to feel OK. It was a bit like Louis CK’s love of feeling “the forever alone thing” – you let it in because it made you feel human. It was fine to do your best, fashion something you cared about, and let it loose on the world without realistically expecting the world to wet itself in excitement. Oh, you hoped that might happen, and that little scared voice inside you babbled about klaxons and submarines – but you knew you weren’t a big deal yet, so that hope was probably unrealistic. Maybe, if you were smart and hard-working enough you’d become a big deal, but right now you definitely weren’t one. Right?
And then along came social media.
Have you ever thought about the language that social media platforms use to get you hooked?
Followers. Fans. Likes. Favourites.
These are words designed to make you feel really, really special.
You don’t have a bunch of people you have connected to on Twitter in a loose relationship where you’re only occasionally aware of what each of you is doing – you have “Followers“.
Your Facebook page doesn’t have people who once Liked something you did, expressed their approval by Liking your page as well, and yet through a combination of Facebook’s recent reach-throttling shenanigans and general social media overwhelm, might never visit your page again. It has “Fans“.
This kind of wording messes you up. You start seeing things.
In my case, I used to look at social media and see this:
Oh, just look at them. They’re rapt. Hanging on my every word.
I feel so IMPORTANT.
(And, you know, loved. Sniffle.)
Social media made me believe I had a massive audience that was ready to take to the streets and spread the word of Mike.
Naturally, this made social media the most important part of my strategy to get new readers and spread my ideas. The more Fans or Followers I had, the closer to success I’d get. (Defining “success” wasn’t important right now – I just had to build my social media numbers.)
And the great thing was, it wasn’t hard to build my numbers up.
I tried following a bunch of people on Twitter to get some of them to follow me back – and later, I unfollowed the ones that didn’t. Amazing! Instant fame. This stuff was laughably easy. And I’d read about writers “struggling to build an online audience”! What idiots they must be.
So, you know where this story is going.
But I bet you still believe, as I did until recently, in the unrivalled power of social media to build a dedicated tribe of supporters that will broadcast your praises from every rooftop and buy every single piece of creative work you push out the door.
Our true believers.
If only it were that simple.
A Few Facts And Figures
How Many Of Your Twitter Followers Read Your Tweets?
There’s absolutely no way of telling. Sorry. Your best bet is to look at clickthrough rates – which make for depressing reading, since the average clickthrough rate is 1.64% and appears to decrease the more followers you acquire. (And those figures are pretty optimistic, my own research suggests.)
How Many Facebook Fans See Your Posts?
Again, absurdly tricky to monitor, but these guys suggests that for a Facebook Page like mine with between 1,000 and 10,000 fans, I’m reaching an average of 14% of those Fans, and sufficiently motivating around 7% of them to act in some way. It’s best you presume there are massive amounts of hand-waving with these figures – but again, the larger your numbers of Fans, the smaller the percentage of them that can truly be called an “audience”. A factor in all of this: Facebook is increasingly restricting organic reach.
What’s The Very First Thing You Did This Morning After You Started Up Your Computer?
Hold onto that thought for a second.
This is Copyblogger.
You may have heard of it. These folk are enormously successful. And the reason for that success is simple: they’re using the right tools in the right way.
At the beginning of December, frustrated by the fickle nature of social media, I loaded all of Copyblogger’s free Internet Marketing Course (14 ebooks) onto my tablet and read them from beginning to end. And then I sat there, confused. And then I went and read other Copyblogger training material, and listened to interviews with the company’s founder, Brian Clark.
And then I sat there some more, still confused, still not quite understanding.
E-mail is how they’re so big these days? Really? E-mail?
So I decided to test it out.
In early December I made a 5-part summary of everything I’ve learned about online storytelling over the last few years. Five ranty essays, packed with things I hoped some people would find useful. Then I used Mailchimp to build a way to deliver them by e-mail to anyone who signed up to my list: one e-mail a day for 5 days.
A few months later, here’s how things looked:
From these stats, collected from thousands of e-mails, I can now be pretty confident that if I sent an e-mail through this list to 600 people, around 300 of them would open it, and somewhere near 60 would click on whatever I was talking about.
That’s good, hard feedback.
It’s also a benchmark. If I sent out an update to that list and 65% of that list opens it, I know I’ve really nailed the title. If 30% open it, well, oops, back to copywriting school I must go (and Copyblogger’s ebook about writing effective headlines). It allows me to see what works and what I’m doing wrong, and respond accordingly.
Social media is a fun way to build an audience (even though it does its best to kid you about how big that audience really is) – and on social media, you definitely feel you’re part of something greater.
But for making people care about what you’re doing, e-mail wipes the floor with it.
Wait, So – I Should Get Off Social Media Completely?
Terrible idea. Please allow me to rugby-tackle that thought. Because – NO.
Back in March, I was feeling frustrated with Facebook and announced I was shutting my Fevered Mutterings fanpage down. In essence, it was officially Facebook’s fault that I didn’t know what I was doing with it. (Not my finest hour, that.) Meanwhile, many friends were getting tons of Likes and shares and all the stuff that denotes popularity on Facebook. They were doing something I clearly wasn’t, and had a lively audience they weren’t reaching by paying Facebook money, and I should have been looking at that before I jumped to conclusions.
E-mail is absurdly powerful, but it’s not the answer to all your audience-acquiring dreams. It’s just a tool. Like a hammer. It’s really, really amazing for a small range of things, and in those specific ways it completely out-performs, say, a screwdriver or a chisel. If you’ve been using a chisel to bang in nails before now, a hammer is going to blow your mind.
But it can’t do everything for you.
Similarly, if you’re telling stories online in order to build an audience, you need a varied toolkit. But more importantly, you need to use the right tool for the job. Sometimes the right tool is social media. Sometimes it’s e-mail. You just have to learn which.
(I stole this metaphor from Tim Grahl. You should read his book. More on that soon.)
Here’s what I call social media these days: extended storytelling.
You’re sharing details of your life in an excitingly immediate and socially connected way, and it’s addictive on both sides. If you’re smart and you’re playing to the strengths of the platform you’re using, you can get an amazing number of people to pay attention to what you’re doing – or deliver “the greatest Twitter joke of all time,” according to Stephen Fry. In both these cases, e-mail would be completely the wrong tool to use. Hell, you couldn’t use it. It wouldn’t work. Completely inappropriate.
If you’re using social media to support and slyly, carefully promote your best work, it’s terrific. If you want to have a visible marketing presence that is directly tracked by search engines, social media can help (although be aware that social signals don’t appear to be a major SEO ranking factor). If you want discussions, get on Facebook and Twitter – that’s pretty much what they’re for.
But if you’re using it to do pretty much all of your outreach and marketing, relegating e-mail to an afterthought, and if you think social media numbers automatically translate into a passionate fanbase that will do whatever you ask it to, including giving you money for all your hard work – you’re taking an enormous risk. You’re also wasting an opportunity to focus on what really works, stuff you can truly measure, to build a real audience that really will champion your work in public, and to use social media to connect in a deeper way to an audience you’ve already built for yourself elsewhere.
Do that, and your world will be changed forever.
“Why you should start building your e-mail list now” – Jeff Goins.
“E-mail List Building From The Experts” – Kevan Lee, Buffer Blog.
“Your First 1000 Copies” – Tim Grahl.