I’m a product manager here at Klout (now part of the great team at Lithium) who has had the opportunity to work on both our consumer and business products over the past several years. Over the course of that time, I’ve noticed that while these products serve different audiences, they do so by trying to solve a set of problems common to both. Our users—both individuals and brands—turn to social media to help them build meaningful relationships. Individuals like you and me want to share ideas with other similarly minded people; brands, meanwhile, want to improve their products by connecting with and learning from the people who actually use them.
As a set of technologies, social media is designed to help people “create, share or exchange information and ideas.” Yet if that’s the case, why are there so many articles and blog posts—including this one—written about the difficulty of building meaningful relationships in an environment supposedly meant to foster them?
The answer, quite simply, is that social media relationships are complicated because they’re built on top of complicated human relationships. In this post, I want to pass along some of my own learnings about building relationships using social media in the hope that it will help you.
1. Be active, even when it feels like no one’s listening.
A guaranteed way to not build relationships is to sit back and do nothing. Social media relationships begin with and revolve around content that you and your audience find engaging. The problem, of course, is that most content is not engaging, or at least it doesn’t spark conversation. Yet while it can certainly be off-putting to feel like your content isn’t being read by anyone or garnering many interactions, take solace in knowing that actual people are reading what you have to say. Here’s some food for thought:
* According to a 2013 Stanford-Facebook Data Science study of 222,000 Facebook posts, social media users consistently underestimated their true audience size by 73%. In fact, the study found that on average 34% of your friends will see a unique post.
* While attending the Products Are Hard 2013 convention in San Francisco last year, I heard Judd Antin of Facebook UX Research further confirm the fact that users underestimated their listening audience. One of the consequences of this discovery was the addition of “Seen By” feature on group posts.
* In March 2014, Twitter apparently noticed the same audience underestimation phenomenon and ran two separate consumer tests where they began exposing the number of views posts received to users. The first test showed users their top performing tweets in a weekly summary e-mail (Check out some examples here, here, here, and here).
The second test aimed at iOS users exposed the number of views that posts received within the user’s tweet stream (Check out The Verge, Buzzfeed, PC Mag, and The Daily Dot for details). While these changes weren’t incorporated into later Twitter versions, it’s interesting that Twitter has been experimenting with ways to signal back audience size.
People are listening, even if it doesn’t always feel like they are. Stay active on social media, but take the time to experiment with different types of content until you discover what your audience finds interesting. Pay attention to what you like, re-post, and comment on, and strive to create similar content of your own.
2. Relationship building is a lot like improv.
I’ve often heard people compare social media accounts to stages, a place where anyone can be their own director, screenwriter, and actor. You decide what to post, when to post, and who should see it. Personally, I’ve never really liked this view. It feels too much like a monologue, and not enough like a conversation.
I think a better metaphor can be pulled from one of my favorite TV shows: Whose Line Is It, Anyway? While the show provides structure in the form of actors and specific improv games, it’s the audience’s contribution that makes the experience special. In the same way, social media works best when it’s collaborative. Some recent analysis seems to confirm this idea:
* In 2012, researchers from Carnegie Mellon, Univ. Southampton, MIT, and Georgia Tech analyzed 43,738 voluntary tweet ratings from 1,443 users. Among the study’s key findings was the fact that “users value information sharing and random thoughts above me-oriented or presence updates.” In other words, users are more receptive to content that invites them to participate rather than just talking at them. Sounds a lot like how people act and build relationships offline too, no?
* Posts that gain interactions also appear to receive snowballing benefits. Researchers have found that as social media conversations gain traction through feedback, more people are likely to view that content, thus giving it an opportunity to be engaged with again. As they put it, “audience size grows rapidly as posts gather more feedback.”
3. Don’t try and impress everyone.
Not everyone out there on the Internet is going to be interested in building a long-lasting relationship with you. Social media users—whether posting on behalf of themselves or brands—are people after all. People have many different and competing interests, so posts don’t need to have universal appeal all the time. Content that broadcasts to everyone but engages no one is ultimately useless. In fact, social media relationship building often requires focusing on a few individuals or groups at a single time.
* In 2011, a group of researchers from Facebook, the Univ. Of Michigan, and Cornell looked into how Facebook users allocate their attention across their friend network. Beneath all the various analyses that the team performed, one of my favorite takeaways is the idea that people fluctuate greatly in how broadly they focus their attention—including across age, gender, relationship status, etc. Some people work to maintain large networks, while others want to preserve close relationships with a select few. In either case, it’s clear that people only have so much attention to give—and they probably can’t dedicate it all to you for everything you post. Why not then create certain posts to engage and attract certain people at the right times?
Relationship building can be tough, but it’s also doable.
Building relationships on social media is a lot like building relationships with people in the offline world. It requires time, patience and real-world social wherewithal. From my experience at Klout working with both users and brands, relationship building can be tough, but it’s also doable. Not to sound too much like a dating-advice columnist, but just remember a few simple steps:
1. People can only interact with you if you give them something to react to. Keep posting because people are listening. Click to Tweet
2. To foster social media relationships, create content that invites discussion and collaboration. Click to Tweet
3. Realize that you can’t connect with everyone all the time. Create interesting content for subsets of users to maximize your chances for meaningful online relationships. Click to Tweet
At Klout, we’ve worked to incorporate these same thoughts into the products we build for our users and business clients. Klout users have tools to help them discover content their audiences will care about, share this content regularly, and find other like-minded people who are likely to engage with their posts. Likewise, our business tools help brands generate unique earned media via our Perks platform, distribute unique experiences and products that are highly engaging , and connect brands with the subsets of users who are most excited about them.