Three Biases That Prevent Social Media Gurus From Objectively Evaluating New Social Tools

Yesterday Facebook released new tools to help improve users’ control of Facebook sharing and data.  The reaction to these new tools has been generally very positive (and, in my opinion, deservedly so).  But there's been some interesting buzz among social media gurus, particularly about problems with the new Facebook Groups functionality.  These gripes seem to be based less on a consideration of how the average consumer will use Groups than on a set of use cases and problems unique to social media professionals.  In short, I worry social media specialists are making the classic mistake that trips up marketers time and again: You are not the target market!

I believe there are three reasons that social media professionals may end up judging new tools based on their biases and not upon the potential use and adoption by the average consumer.  These reasons are:

  • Social media professionals are Creators and Conversationalists: Creators create the content that others consume in social venues, and Conversationalists post frequent status updates. Social media professionals are (not surprisingly) big Creators and Conversationalists, but the average consumer is not--fewer than one in four online adults in the US have Creator behaviors and fewer than one in three are Conversationalists. 

    If social media professionals fail to recognize how their habits differ from the average person's, this causes a problem. When a new social tool is released, we innate Creators and Conversationalists race into it and do what we do best--post and talk!  But this explosion of content and interactivity doesn't furnish the same experience that is available to the average consumer.  For example, when Google Wave was released, a stampede of social media Creators and Conversationalists rushed into the tool, found a number of like-minded individuals and interesting interactions, and pronounced it the next Twitter; less than a year later Google pulled the plug on the standalone version of Wave.

    In a similar vein, I had an interesting experience evaluating Facebook Groups yesterday: After one hour, I quit the very first group to which I was invited.  Does this mean I feel Facebook Groups is a failure?  No, because this group consisted of social media professionals, and I quit because the constant flow of notifications and chats was annoying and got in the way of interacting with friends and family. Facebook Groups is perfectly aligned with the way the average consumer will use it but is a very poor community tool for social media addicts.  When a member of a bowling team shares a team schedule with her Group or a member of a family Group chats with sisters and cousins, Facebook Groups shines; but when a hundred self-promoting, broadcast-addicted, networking-obsessed social media ninjas share every blog post or turn the group chat into a constant stream of chatter, Facebook Groups fails. 

  • Social media professionals have enormous networks:  Another reason social media professionals can have difficulty relating to the needs and experiences of the average person is that we have tremendous networks.  I follow 8,678 people on Twitter, but the average Twitter user follows just 77 people according to recent Forrester research on social media clutter. Not only does this difference affect the number of tweets I receive, but it has a profound impact on who I follow closely and how I engage on Twitter.  I am not the average Twitter user. 

    Today a respected social media expert bashed Facebook Groups because people were inviting him into groups, and that meant he was getting lots of Facebook updates he didn’t want. The reason for this is that by default anyone who is invited into a Group automatically becomes a member, so one must opt out rather than opt in. There is good reason to debate if this is an appropriate default (and perhaps Facebook will change it after Michael Arrington and Mark Zuckerberg were automatically added to a pro-pedophile Group). But to truly evaluate whether this default is good or bad, we need to consider this not from the standpoint of someone who follows almost 40,000 folks on Twitter but rather someone who is connected with 99.8% fewer people. While those of use who are widely networked may be annoyed at having to decline a dozen Facebook Groups invitations, the average consumer probably won’t be as frustrated being automatically added to a Group for their family or book club. 

  • Social media professionals worry about monetization:  How will Facebook and Twitter make money?  Most people don’t really care (at least until ads start diminishing the experience), but those of us in the field of social media have to care.  We earn our keep, in part, by understanding the business models of social networks.  The fact that we know how Facebook and Twitter generate revenue allows us to recommend paid media plans, develop applications on their platforms and advise clients on smart social strategies.  But this focus on monetization also makes us a pretty suspicious bunch.

    Even though there’s no evidence Facebook Groups creates an immediate or obvious revenue opportunity for Facebook, a Twitter friend of mine immediately accused Groups of being a “Trojan Horse” to deliver “old-fashioned advertisements.”  It’s not that he’s definitely wrong--Groups may be a way for Facebook to increase revenue--but I find it difficult to consider this helpful new functionality, which allows people to better control who can see their posts and information, and portray it as more harmful than beneficial for users. 

    A couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet with Dick Costolo, Twitter’s new CEO, when Twitter released its new browser interface. One of the questions I asked is if the new interface would allow Twitter to earn more money from Promoted Tweets and Trends, and I could see it frustrated Dick to have the organization’s motives questioned when he and the team were clearly very excited about enhancing the experience of millions of people. Dick's a seasoned executive and Twitter stands to make a lot of money so that frustration is the least of his problems, but my conversation made me consider if social media professionals are too quick to attribute greed rather than customer focus as the driving force behind each new social tool and feature.

It’s not a condemnation that social media experts have biases--we all have biases.  But it’s important we be aware of these biases and walk a mile in another man’s shoes before we heap praise or criticism upon new social network features or tools.  Social media strategies and applications cannot be evaluated from the perspective of people who are wired into them every waking moment but must be considered from the standpoint of the vast number of casual users who constitute the majority.


Great point

Augie, thank you for speaking on behalf of the end user, rather than the rabid observer. Excellent perspective.


Augie - thanks for your

Augie - thanks for your insights on the response that social media marketers have had in relation to new tools.

When new tools are made available or releases on new tools come about, it is inevitable that we will look to see what the implication is for communication, engagement and bottom line results.

Your article is a great reminder that those of us working in digital marketing and social media don't necessarily adopt or use use tools the same way as consumers/customers do. We have seen a number of times that they will adopt the tools in a way that makes sense for them.

I know some small businesses already using Facebook Groups successfully and I am sure they and their community welcome the changes.

I personally will be selective about the Groups I am a member of - and I will join those Groups that support my personal and professional goals.

Being selective on Facebook Groups....

Krishna, Being selective on Facebook Groups is absolutely essential. People who join too many groups (or groups that are too active) will find Facebook gets too noisy--lots of different things demanding one's attention. Facebook Groups is not a replacement for Twitter or LinkedIn, nor is it a replacement for actual communities. Instead, it is simply a layer of functionality to help Facebook users share select communications with a select group of people.

Thanks for the comment!

Augie, I disagree.

Augie, I disagree. ;)

Actually, it's a pretty darn good post. It's always good to be reminded that everyone is not yourself, regardless of what it is you are trying to do.

A disagreement!

Thanks Joe. I appreciate the Twitter response and comment (even it wasn't a true disagreement.)

Thank *you*, Augie.

Thank *you*, Augie.

I was slammed into a group

I was slammed into a group almost as soon as that feature was announced. Within an hour I'd deleted the group's feed. Expect I will exit the group shortly.

Maybe it's because I'm an advertising guy, but I believe we need to win people's interest and involvement, whether in social media or traditional channels -- not force-feed them.

You've already posted and tweeted about the dangers of being enrolled in a group without your knowledge or consent. My point is yes, maybe being a social media pro has made you in theory a little more open to the idea of this new group function, even though in practice your experience apparently mirrored mine.

Average consumer reaction

Thanks Blair,

I'm sure Facebook is monitoring the reaction their average consumer has to groups. I expect we'll the functoinality evolve, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if these became opt in versus opt out. Still, unlike most opt-in-opt-out debates around Facebook, this isn't a question of Facebook giving away your data or opening you up to more advertising but is a question of how Facebook can best facilitate peer-to-peer interactions.

Thanks for the input!

Actually, I suspect the new

Actually, I suspect the new group function is a kind of crowd-sourcing experiment to see if they can infer individual interests and preferences from which groups people are unwittingly enrolled in.

It's simple. If I don't choose to join a particular group, I'm not giving Facebook a data point on my interests. If someone else enrolls me in a group, that person just gave Facebook a data point about me. It may not be as accurate as the list of groups I joined myself, but it's a data point. Whether I stay or opt out is another data point. So that's two data points I not only didn't volunteer, but which I was essentially forced to surrender.

So I'm not convinced the new group function is about facilitating peer-to-peer interactions so much as it is designed to gain inferred data on Facebook users. If I'm wrong on this please straighten me out.

Facebook's motivations

I guess I can't really infer Facebook's motivations better than anyone else, but I don't see opt-in or opt-out as particularly more telling in terms of data value. If we assume a Groups function will have the ability to invite others to join (regardless of opt-out/opt-in) then Facebook can infer something from the invitation. Whether a friend invited me to join the Justin Bieber fan group and I need to opt in or they invite me and I'm immediately added makes little difference--Facebook still can capture that data point.

I believe there have been calls for better controls within Facebook and groups helps to accomodate this. Anything we do on Facebook can be used to better target advertising (just like anything we do on Google, Yahoo or hundreds of other sites.) In the end, I don't think the question is one of whether Facebook Groups can be used to collect more data on users but whether the extra functoinality is more of a benefit versus the cost of giving up more data. I think the vast majority of users will have no trouble accepting that cost/benefit analysis.

Thanks for the dialog!

Great article

What a great read! Def reminds me of how we need to distinguish customer behavior on our online properties as well, without projecting how we would use the site.

On a diff note, following 8678 people on Twitter? Really?? :)

Following 8678 people

Yes, I follow 8678 people, but the word "follow" certainly takes a different defintion in that context. I view following people as an opportunity to engage them in DMs, but if people abuse that (and obviously spam and auto-DMs can be a problem) then I'll unfollow. But, the chances of me seeing any particular tweet is pretty low unless someone is on one of my favorite Twitter/Hootsuite lists. I'd estimate I am potentially exposed to 15,000 to 20,000 tweets per day--one every four or five seconds.

Thanks for the dialog!

You're Partially Right

Indeed, social media consultants aren't the target audience. But, our clients often are. Unlike Forrester, which typically has a period of time before putting out official pronouncements on where social computing is headed, we "real world" consultants ;) have to read the tea leaves instantaneously. Already today - 48 hours after the launch - I've counseled two clients on what the new Groups means, how it might be used, etc.

So yes indeed, we might be jumping to conclusions. But often the market dictates that scenario. It doesn't make it right, but that's the reality (at least for me). And so, the consultants with less business experience (which unfortunately is a large portion of the brigade) tend to look at things through only their own prism, in their haste to make sense of it all.

Good post. I still think Facebook is Mordor. ;)

Just kicking back and enjoying the slow pace of Forrester

Who is this Forrester you speak of that has the luxury of time? My posts and reports on Facebook Places, New Twitter interface and Groups were published within hours of the events!

Seriously, I appreciate the comment and understand the pressures. My intent wasn't to criticize the need for speed--which is a necessity in today's world--but to discuss how we must be aware of our own biases. Failure to do so means we sacrifice accuracy and objectivity when we move quickly.

On a different note, I'd love to explore why Facebook is Mordor. I understand some of the concerns--Facebook hasn't always played by the rules with things like Beacon and Instant Personalization. But some of people's concerns seem related to Facebook having our data, monetizing it, and owning so much of people's time and attention. To me, that seems to penalize Facebook for being smart, offering a free tool people find useful, and doing what everyone else on the Internet does, which is leverage user data. Google does the same thing--for many years it has made large sums of money off of the fact everyone uses it as a gateway to find other content on the Internet--but it doesn't seem to face the same sort of backlash. So what is it about Facebook that has you so deeply suspicious?

Good post!

Very rightly pointed out.

Groups are for like minded

Hi Augie,

I couldn't resist myselft from asking you this question "Are Groups not meant for like mentatlities?" If you agree with this, there is should be a strategy for Social Media Pros to utilize it to their benefits .My point is rather than stating the fact that the Facebook Groups are not fit for Social Media Pros, we should be determining the best way to utilize it!. Just the way a senate hall works! People with the same mentality ,with similar thirst for power and money but productive debates do happen there...Agree/Disagree ?


Mr. Ray, Thank you for

Mr. Ray,
Thank you for helping to keep the enormous amount of dialog surrounding social media honest. The task of weeding through the sheer volume of chatter from the "expert" community can often leave one with the impression that the chatter matters more than the tools.
The experience of watching the meteoric rise of Twitter and Facebook reminds me that in five years time, we'll all look back and wonder how so many could make so much from so little.
Marty Thompson