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Why one of the most misunderstood concepts in social media is reach

15 July 2010 | social-media | 15 Comments Why one of the most misunderstood concepts in social media is reach

Even “experts” in the social media industry misunderstand the basic concept of reach and we thought we’d take a moment to set the record straight. The other day, I saw one of the “gurus” say, “my network is 3000 people. Those 3000 people have networks too and it doesn’t take very long to realize that we can turn things around and spread the message in a very quick way.”

The same person in the same breath said, “3000 people get my updates and information every day, guaranteed.” If you’re a company and you’re thinking, “wow, I should call that dude because he can get my brand message out there like crazy,” you should stop right where you are. Pull up a chair, because I’m about to tell you why that is complete bologna (no offense to the bologna creators out there).

What this guru/expert/maven is claiming is that he has an expansive reach in social media, but the dirty little secret is that my 4,948 Twitter followers, 1,812 Facebook friends and 596 professional connections on LinkedIn does not mean that my reach (although expansive) is 7,356. Add on that the nearly 300,000 blog readers I touch every month in the various blogs I contribute to. My reach isn’t technically 307,356. The gurus are adding up numbers from all of their networks to determine their “reach” and “guaranteeing” they can reach that many people and badda bing, badda boom, magic is made!

Why those fudged numbers are bull:

Once a user of any social network surpasses about 50 connections, it is near impossible for them to read every single thing that every single connection says. Given that Facebook users average roughly 100 friends each, you get the picture that not all messages from all users are read.

These numbers are also bologna because of check in frequency. How can you possibly guarantee to reach 3000 users per day when not every user checks in every single day? Of even the most dedicated and tech savvy Twitter users (as defined by those who have downloaded TweetDeck for example), only 92% log in every day. The average user probably visits a tenth of that amount.

The trend is away from live constant contact where every reader reads every update to a more loose, “I’ll read the public timeline of updates for the few minutes that I am physically logged into the social network on the days that I feel like it.” In other words, no one reads the entire public timeline anymore, that is so 2007.

Guaranteed reach is a myth.

We consult with companies every day and the first thing we hear is, “how do I get 400,000 followers on Twitter?” to which we have to ask of course about what their goals are, where that arbitrary number came from, etc. Conference speakers who have never developed a strategy in their life yet are professional “keynote speakers about social media” are telling people to “hurry up and get mass followers which equals reach” yet misunderstand the fundamentals of reach.

To drive home my point, I want you to think about television advertising. Just because 3 million people watched the season premier of that show you like doesn’t mean that (a) 2.5 million didn’t fast forward through the DVR, (b) leave the room during commercials, (c) mute the commercials, or (d) any other infinite variable that means someone didn’t watch. But the tv ad sales guy will tell you that he can get you in front of 3 million people. Communications professionals know there is a margin to count on but the reality of 3 million is as unrealistic as the “guru” guaranteeing reach.

“Guru” guy can’t guarantee how many people will look just as he can’t guarantee how many of those people will share his message, and how fewer will take action at the point of sale. It’s just like the picture above… in a noisy crowd of people, with a good strategy, you’ll hit your target… but the rest of the crowd isn’t listening and your strategy should take that into account because the “guru’s” strategy misses this basic fundamental of Marketing 101.

photo source

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15 Comments for this entry

  • Connie Reece
    July 15th, 2010 on 10:04 am

    So, so true! Also not taken into account in those thousands of Twitter followers are how many of them are spammers or bots–and if a person has been following one of those “get more Twitter followers” schemes, that number could be HUGE. That’s one reason I like what Klout.com is attempting to do — measure real reach for a Twitter user. For example, I have around 6,800 followers on Twitter; Klout estimates my real reach on the service is 4K. Not sure how accurate that really is, but at least they’re trying to provide better measurement.

  • Vicki Flaugher
    July 15th, 2010 on 10:10 am

    Well said, Lani – the first suspect factoid is that a social media “guru” only has 3000 followers – really? Is he sleeping on the job or what? I am just your run of the mill web marketing strategist and I have more than that!

    But, it’s not really about the numbers, as you know. Even reach doesn’t mean people give a damn. I like statistics that track what % of people talk about you (and maybe take the desired revenue related action, if that’s your goal) atrather than how many you talk at. Broadcast, PR blast it’s all about me is SO 2009 (or earlier)!

    Thanks for sharing your viewpoint – as always, brilliant!

    Vicki Flaugher

  • Lani Rosales
    July 15th, 2010 on 10:26 am

    Connie, that’s a great point too! Those “get more followers” schemes remind me of tricking the cat or dog into doing that funny face by feeding them peanut butter. It’s just wrong.

    Vicki, this “guru” was a paid “keynote speaker” at a conference. He’s an Austinite and had never heard of #BATHH or any of us (you, me, anyone on Twitter) which of course was an even bigger tip off that he’s not involved in social media but probably signed up for the “get more followers” scheme, called himself an expert and laughed all the way to the bank.

  • Vicki Flaugher
    July 15th, 2010 on 10:35 am

    Well, Lani, if that guru hasn’t heard of you and he’s in Austin, he’s not someone I want to follow! All kidding aside, I have started exploring B2B Social Media and over the next few months am going to begin branding myself into that arena – I can see where his point of view might be an issue in that market. I’ll let you know it goes. It’s a great convo to have with the bigwig corp types – they probably don’t us either and frankly, they should. *wink*

  • Lori Luza
    July 15th, 2010 on 10:35 am

    Besides, doesn’t that self-proclaimed guru have just the same 3,000 other self-proclaimed “gurus” in his following? Aren’t they all just networking together to make each other look good?

    I’m all for networking with as many colleagues as possible, but “those guys” seem to *only* network with each other…..thus no real following at all.

  • Lani Rosales
    July 15th, 2010 on 10:38 am

    Vicki, it’s certainly not a requirement to know specific people, but if you are devoted to being a social media “expert,” chances are that you network or collaborate with other industry professionals rather than sit at home, play WoW and speak once a month at a dumb conference by just showing a video you didn’t create and regurgitating blog materials from blogs you didn’t write, right? :)

  • Lani Rosales
    July 15th, 2010 on 10:38 am

    Lori, THAT is a great great point and one that has to be explained repeatedly to the corporate world because on paper that 3k looks pretty sexy but in reality it’s fluff.

  • Gloria Bell
    July 15th, 2010 on 10:51 am


    You are so on target! The idea that we are reaching every one of our followers on any social network 100% of the time is just absurd! Anyone who works in this space that is promising a client that their message will be heard based on that definition of reach is a fraud. They quite evidently have not spent sufficient time in the space to understand that often we are only reaching a small percentage of followers and sometimes we are just talking to ourselves.

    Despite having many (not so kind) thoughts running through my head, I am not going to comment on a “social media guru” and “keynote speaker” on social media only having 3000 followers. That speaks volumes for itself about the extent of his credibility and knowledge.

  • Jeramy Johnson
    July 15th, 2010 on 10:52 am

    I don’t like the idea that anyone can claim to be a social media “expert”, so that should tip people off right there to listening to this guru dude. I think there is definitely a critical mass of fan/followers/whatever to make you be viewed as a legitimate “source” on a topic (though having fewer doesn’t mean your message isn’t a good one or that people aren’t engaged), but it’s got to be more about how involved your audience is with you (and you with them… I don’t like it when sites don’t try to talk with their audience)…. sorry for the rambling, but I agree with you ladies!

  • Lani Rosales
    July 15th, 2010 on 12:04 pm

    Gloria, I agree with everything you said. Clients are looking for a “solution in a box” where you just plug in a profile and BAM, clients grow on trees, but it takes a lot of hard work (which Mr. Keynote would know nothing about).

  • Lani Rosales
    July 15th, 2010 on 12:07 pm

    Jeramy, studies show that people with fewer followers tend to have a higher impact. The theory is that the more followers a person has, the more noise they make and their message is diluted OR that they are not part of an intimate group of people. Small groups tend to yield more brand evangelists as word of mouth is more effective in a quiet room where people listen rather than a crowded room full of noise.

    I find it to be true that as I garner more of a following, I have to work doubly hard to tailor a message to be heard by the right people (the right people are the ones that will meet my goal which is clicking a link, reading an article and inquiring about services).

  • Vicki Flaugher
    July 15th, 2010 on 12:07 pm

    Very good point, all. Lani, I think your next post should be “How to Not Be a Fluffer in Social Media”. Fun thought, at least! *grin*

  • Vicki Flaugher
    July 15th, 2010 on 12:13 pm

    I did forget to comment re: numbers – for me, it’s about diversity of my followers, not just the raw count. It’s not that I’ve found followers who want to listen to the same one message I’m all about, which would have to be very noisy to get attention, but rather I’ve tried to build a brand that is rich, multi-faceted, and interesting across demographics to develop a cohesive 3D version of how I think about life, business, et al. And, I respond back to all @ replies and mentions. I swim the stream when I’m there and do my best to treat people like people. Whether I am successful at influencing is up to who feels that way about me, not how I feel about it. And, I believe other people should call you a guru (or thought leader) rather than you call yourself that. That is definitely a dead giveaway.

    GREAT conversation – thanks for letting me part of it!

  • Todd Barnard
    July 15th, 2010 on 1:22 pm

    “reach” can be mechanically deduced, contrary to “Mr. Kenote” fuzzy math.

    Ignoring things like Klout, or whatever sketchy Sillicon Valley start-up Scobie is pimping this week, you just start from a simple premise: reciprocity.

    Google provides a great tool for the job in its Social Graph API


    1. Enter you Twitter URL, and, optionally your blog if its uses one of the commenting plug-ins that support relme.

    2. Let it chew on the cud that is your social graph for a bit

    3. The API will generate a list of people you follow and whom follow you back. Its downloadable as a csv file if you want it BTW.

    Its up to you to make use of the reciprocal connections how you see fit. I personally performed this exercise then copied the mutual follows back into the API again – the resulting list is what I consider “my reach”, knowing that Twitter “@’s” and RTs are never seen by people who are not following me.

    I bet the above would make “Mr. Keynote” mess his pants as the reality of reciprocity kicks his ego to the curb i.e. Yeah you have 30,000+ followers but only ~5% of whom ever read ( or care ) what you have to say.

  • Lani Rosales
    July 15th, 2010 on 4:24 pm

    Great tool, I think reciprocity is a better word than reach in most cases. Good stuff, Todd!

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