The #FollowBack Phenomenon
Why We Take Our Social Media Numbers Way Too Seriously
Congratulations, human. You are a brand. Sometimes, you might even be a meme. What does that mean, and why do we even care?
You've got a rep to protect. In today’s social media marketplace, you are expected to manage your brand with the same dedication and regard as your investment portfolio. Potential clients, colleagues, employers, even romantic partners are looking at and appraising “you, the brand” all the time. Social media never sleeps. Your image’s performance in the marketplace of personal worth fluctuates up and down just like a stock on the day trades, and there are several companies dedicated to helping you measure and monitor your social media clout. But it’s all just smoke and mirrors.
Today, we’re all about the numbers: follows, likes, recommends and retweets... The higher the numbers, the higher our brand value- our perceived return on the value of another’s attention investment. Higher numbers are indicative of a worthy investment. Right? For all this speculation, though, is increased value really the case? Are we losing sight of the long-term value that comes with actual engagement and personal relationships?
The Death of “Social” in Social Media
Everyone wants to be popular. Of course we do. We want to be liked, feel valued, and admired. That’s just human nature. The quest for numbers in social media, however, has taken likeability to a whole new level. How many times have you chosen not to follow someone based solely on low numbers? We all do it. But, if you have +150K on Twitter, then surely you’re a likable person, right? Not exactly. Twitter followers are now a commodity, bought and sold on the public platform of social media. They are for sale. And it isn't exclusive to Twitter- you can buy false friends and faux engagement on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram… In short, you can buy friends and followers, but that doesn't mean you’re worthy of the words “friend” or “follower.”
All the world’s a stage…
For example, there are some accounts on Twitter dedicated solely to tweeting quotes. All quotes, all the time; in the age of Google, where’s the value in that? Some are memes, like Grumpy Cat, and parody accounts, such as fake Betty White or Bored Elon Musk, which are witty and clever and delightfully entertaining. Others simply retweet articles from CNN and the Economist- where’s the value in that? Just follow CNN & Economist and bypass the middleman. Also, if you’re using social media to do this, stop it. Stop it, now. Your time is worth more than that. Spend it wisely.
“The medium is not the message. The messages are the media.” -David Carr
Our attention span is a hot commodity. As it is with any commodity, there’s always someone trying to manipulate the market in order to make a profit. A few years ago, I broke up with Facebook. True story. Remember the 2012 “social experiment” designed to manipulate your emotions, and the flippant apology that followed (then, the 2014 sequel)? That was enough for me. I am not willing to partake in that type of behavior just so advertisers can sell me, my friends, colleagues, and my clients more stuff. This Facebook philosophy- using human beings as social lab rats- is contrary to my personal brand, and undermines its value significantly.
Sorry, Facebook. I’ve got a rep to protect.
I work in philanthropy- an industry where trust, loyalty, and personal relationships are paramount to creating a better world. In my social portfolio, 2012 was the year I divested from Facebook and I haven’t looked back. In addition, I've made a professional commitment not to feed into this vulture culture of consumerism. I’ve shifted our corporate philosophy and only allow advertising from and for corporate social responsibility initiatives. To advertise with any of my company holdings, you have to “bring the goods,” not just the goods and services.
Potential advertisers: How and where are you changing the world? If you can’t convey that message to my clients and customers- as opposed to simply profiting on the backs of them- then you can’t buy a share of their attention. These are my stakeholders. They’re doing amazing things with their time, money, talents and resources. For that reason, I am a staunch defender of their value; a protector of their time and attention. I refuse to sell them out just so your company, or mine, can make a buck. You want a voice in that market share? Money can’t buy you entry, but the virtue of your good works might.
Ah, the “fear of missing out.”
Much of what we do, and what we value on social media, is motivated by our fear of missing out. It’s a social dynamic that plays upon our fear of being outside the sphere of influence. According to a study published in the July issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior, FOMO is often linked to feelings of disconnection and dissatisfaction, and social media fuels it.
But what’s bad for individuals may just be good for Facebook and other social media platforms: People with a higher “FOMO” were also more likely to use social media, seemingly driven by a need to see what’s happening when they’re not around.
Marketers love a ‘joiner’ mentality, but FOMO is underpinning your behavior and your brand. The bandwagon beckons, and you jump aboard. But you’re quickly reduced to a small voice, cast in a sea of similar voices. You have become an echo. From a branding perspective, this strategy forfeits everything that makes you unique and valued. When managing your brand portfolio, FOMO is the surefire way to dilute your stock.
Instead, define where you fit in, and use your social media and your brand to make companies and marketers court you. Let them, let us, work for your attention and earn your loyalty and trust. The Followback Phenomenon is an effort to shift the market to supply-side economy, instead of a consumer-driven one. It attempts to diminish the value of your brand and your loyalty. Reclaim it immediately. Protect it vehemently.
Retaliation isn’t a strategic marketing solution. It’s a time suck.
I don’t cater to the Followback Phenomenon. Personally, I don’t have many followers on Twitter- and I’m okay with that. I seek quality, not quantity. I have a very diverse interest inventory, but can only engage with so many people at any given moment. I have a life, a business, and a slew of responsibilities and interests that usurp most of my time. When I do check in, I make an effort to actually connect with people and often celebrate some of the great stuff that’s happening in my Twittersphere. Numbers don’t matter to me. I care about intrinsic value and long-term investments. That’s what drives my brand portfolio.
Professionally, social media is a critical tool for engagement. I’m a huge fan of the slow roll- cultivating relationships and allowing them to blossom over time. Lightening strikes and then it’s gone, but the rolling thunder is a constant reminder to be on the lookout for what’s next. This strategy, however, is contrary to the current trend. It’s a ploy devised to play upon our shorter attention spans. Today, if you don’t explode on the scene, if you don’t launch with a lightening bolt and numbers in the gazillions, then you’re not “successful.” That’s just bullshit. Don’t buy into it.
“Fail fast, fail often” is not a business strategy. It’s waste.
Today, 9 out of 10 startups fail. That’s a whopping 90% failure rate. Even for high risk investors, it’s a cautionary statistic. Hundreds of millions are invested in startup companies that claim to be the next big thing- only 10% of them actually are. Why? Among failed innovations, 43% cite failure due to lack of market need. If no one wants what you’re selling, you can’t extend the lifespan for your concept just by throwing money at it. By celebrating and rewarding failure, we’ve created a throw-away culture and mentality.
Companies typically die around 20 months after their last financing round and after having raised $1.3M, according to a study by the analytics firm CB Insights: The RIP Report — startup death trends.
Even so, some startups refuse to die. They limp along for years, squandering capital (monetary, human and intellectual) and resources, determined to make people love them. The RIP Report calls these companies “the walking dead” and I can think of no better descriptor. Shikhar Ghosh, a Harvard lecturer who studies startup mortality, stated, “VCs bury their dead very quietly.” There are reasons for that.
1. Going into business for the wrong reasons
2. Advice from family and friends
3. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time
Surely, if you can amass a following on social media, then you must have value. You’re demonstrating public demand for your company’s product or service. And for just a few bucks, you can buy that perception quickly and easily on almost any social network you choose. That may translate to venture capital, but not market demand. The #FollowBack phenomenon is little more than smoke and mirrors. Once the air clears, however, a critical truth is exposed. You’re unfollowed just as quickly.
Enter, the #Unfollow Filter Frenzy
Your social media brand is growing. You've got the numbers to prove it. Now, in order to maintain those numbers, you must engage in a game of cat and mouse: unfollowing your unfollowers. It’s like the internet rendition of spiteful child friendships. Friends today, frienemies tomorrow.
Despite what social media and engagement companies try to tell you, managing unfollows is counterintuitive. The concept is that you shouldn’t waste time with people who don’t engage with your brand, personally or professionally. Fair enough. But don’t be fooled: retaliation isn't a strategic marketing solution. It’s a time suck.
Instead of worrying about who unfollowed you, and paying for software, services and products that help you do that, concentrate on engagement. Center your brand philosophy around being follow worthy- actively engage with others, share value added content, and focus on being relevant, not trendy. Put the “social” back into your social media. And instead of relying too heavily on third party analytics, try engagement. If you want to know what your followers want or are interested in, try asking them. You’ll build a stronger brand and a more loyal base of followers. And as an added bonus, you’ll have a lot more fun doing it.
Here is truth.
Today, the average person maintains 3–4 social media accounts. What advertising and social media marketing firms don’t want you to know is that your numbers don’t mean anything, except to other companies that profit from manipulating those numbers.
Your social media scorecard or stats are just a reiteration of Facebook’s social experiment. While your time-on-task is dedicated to amassing fake followers and unfollowing them, the companies that help you do this are making money (but they may not be around in a year). Meanwhile, your peers are generating real content and cultivating real relationships. You risk losing what you have by focusing on what you don’t. The smaller more dedicated following is far more valuable to you and your brand than the “big empty” will ever be. Conversations equal conversions. That’s how you cultivate brand loyalty. Be small. Be genuine. Be powerful.
Do that and I promise, I’ll follow back. Who wouldn’t?