How Can Marketers Overcome Social Clutter?

As more marketers take to Facebook and Twitter -- and as users' friend lists on these networks continues to grow -- it strikes me that it may be getting ever harder for marketers to actually get a message through to their target customers. After all, if the average Twitter user follows several hundred people, and all those people post on average a few tweets per day, and then the average Twitter user checks in only a couple times per day and reads maybe 40 or 50 tweets per check-in . . . they're missing a lot of messages, right? If you assume that logic is right (though obviously the data points are all just ballpark guesses right now), it got me wondering: If a marketer has 100,000 followers on Twitter, or 100,000 fans on Facebook, and they post something, what percentage of those followers or fans ever actually see that marketing message?


I've collected the data around this and am in the process of building a model to find the answer to my question -- and I'll be writing a report about that topic this month. In the meantime, though, I'd love to get your thoughts on the topic.

- Do you feel as if it's getting harder or easier for marketers to get a message to users through social media?

- Which social networks do you feel are the most cluttered, and which are the least cluttered?

- Do you have any strategies for overcoming social clutter as a marketer? And do they work?


I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below -- or in the Forrester Interactive Marketing Community, where we're discussing this same topic.


Expressions and Impressions

Hello Nate!

We've tackled this a bit. Our model uses a number we call "expressions" and compare it to "impressions". Expressions is the total number of potential views a Tweet (or comparable bit of social content) COULD be seen. In your example, that's 100k. Impressions is the number ACTUALLY seen, which is some subset of that.

To figure out the divider, we run the campaign a while and see if we can capture some data that would help us be more accurate. We may start and say that the e:i ratio is 5:1 (as an educated guess). Then, look at things like clicks or comments and try to move that up or down. Also helps us shake out things like Bots or Spammers.

Bottom line, this number is never 100% accurate, because the number is unknowable. Facebook gives you impressions in their analytics package, but no one has ever been able to totally explain where that number comes from. And it seems to fluctuate a lot.

So, we try to get to a place where we feel we can be reasonable accurate enough with impressions. But, really, we use that as a way to optimize toward a goal that is creating knowable value (like a click or a purchase or a download or whatever)


e:i ratio

Hey Gary - thanks for the comment. I really like the framework you're using. My primary question is - when you 'see if you can capture data to help you be more accurate,' is it just clicks and comments you're looking at? If so, how do you know what the 'right' view:comment or view:click ratio is? Can you control for especially popular links/topics/etc? I'm wondering if this is where things cross over from data-focused to educated-guess.

Also, what's the primary use of the data once you've created it? Are you estimating a 'media value' for the social program based on impressions? Or using 'actual' impressions (rather than 'expressions') to make sure your CTR/conversion rate/whatever is more accurate? Is there anything you can learn from this to help you do better at improving the e:i ratio, or the program performance, next time around?

Thanks again for your thoughts.

Are They Talking?

Well, i think that's easily answered by if they are talking. So follower counts mean less than active community members. And that means community management supersedes engagement.

Does Size Matter?

As in so many areas of life, we're enamored by the size of what we CAN see and CAN count, regardless of their significance or contribution to meaning.

The real problem right now is not clutter, it's not frequency and reach, it's not even click through rates. Nate, and Forrester, as brilliant and highly regarded as they are, continue to carry the battle flag of an old worldview. Now is the time to stop talking about all the same stuff we have been talking about for the last half century or so, to re-examine our basic assumption about the way things are, the way things work, and they way things can be (or, as I enjoy saying and watching live audiences ponder, we need to purposefully examine our metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics).

Nate is STILL worrying about OLD SCHOOL questions (NOT timeless or enduring questions, just old school): he's talking percentage of folks reached and getting a message out.

As long as our most brilliant thinkers keep asking old school questions, we'll continue to foster the very old school clutter they seek to overcome.

The question fuels the problem.

Why scale still matters in social

I appreciate your thoughts, Trey - but I believe it's absolutely vital that companies understand the number of people they're actually connected to through social channels.

I perhaps should've used more inclusive language than 'getting a message through' -- but I'm not simply asking about things like reach and frequency and impressions (none of which are even mentioned in my question). The fact is, scale matters for all sorts of objectives. Whether you're using social media for customer service, relationship marketing, crowdsourcing, listening -- or anything else -- at some point you need to actually communicate with people. Serving your customers in a new way is great -- but it's ultimately a poor investment if in reality very few of your customers are around to be served in that way. Likewise, getting your audience involved in product development can't work very well if most of the people you're trying to invite into that process never receive the invitation.

It's hard think of any paradigm in which it's good to have fewer people than you intended involved -- and even harder to see how it could be good for a company to simply *not know* how many people their business practices are impacting. And so helping marketers understand where they have the best chance of generating that communication becomes vital to helping them prioritize their activities and achieve their objectives - regardless of what those objectives are.

Thank you…

Thank you for replying. As I mentioned in my comment, I hold you and Forrester to be our bright minds for the future and truly value the contribution you continue to make to marketing thinking. I'm delighted you took the time to acknowledge my comment and to reply.

I'd like to respond more fully, because their is a huge paradigm shift below the surface of our discussion. Unfortunately, I can only make a brief reply now, send your post to Reader, and hope to come back later.

True. You did not actually use the specific, technical terms of frequency and reach. Reach (the number of people exposed to a message at least once) and frequency (the number of times they are exposed to that message) may be considered metrics of outbound message efficiency. It would be fair to say that a conversation about getting a message through (to the marketplace) clutter would be de facto a conversation about message efficiency.

There's an implicit company-centric worldview driving discussions about outbound message efficiency. Politicians put the worldview in brute terms in their frequent moan, "We just have to get our message out."

You do have a point about the necessity of scale; I just missed your praise of scale in the short post here. This particular post seemed to suggest a negative perspective on scale. As you can tell by my own digital footprint, I tend to favor an expanded scale. Large scale seems to grease the skids of serendipity on social networks. So, I'll join you in defense of large scale networks.

I will most enthusiastically join your defense of real communication between real people. So far, it seems companies have an unbelievably difficult time working around all the systems, policies, and procedures built in a outbound message efficiency world to actually HEAR what their customers are saying, seek to truly UNDERSTAND what their customers are saying, and to reply, as human, on the basis of what their customers are saying.

It could be there's a need for more focus on message effectiveness metrics (without the starting point of, "what's the ROI of us getting a message in?"; though I realize that question must EVENTUALLY be addressed. It's a disadvantageous, possibility-limiting starting point.)

How's that for brief? Bet it makes you wonder what a "fuller response" might look like, huh?

Thank you for fostering, fueling, and maintaining real conversation.

The real focus

Please note that I did not advocate smaller networks (I think you're assuming I did). I suggested that focusing on what's easy to see and easy to count (size/scale) is not so important as significance and meaning. Which is, I'm assuming from your reply, a conclusion we share in agreement.

Cluetrain Manifesto

Engagement folks,, and thought leadership. Sheer numbers do not really tell the story. As people continue to use new net services to find trusted recommendations from friends it will become harder to use the old metrics suggested here to measure effectiveness. I agree with Trey that the old thinking will potentially marginalize the consultants clout as they continue to focus on "old" models rather than be truly thought leaders.


Thank you Tom.

Always a pleasure

to read Trey Pennington and Nate Elliott and now to find you on the same page.

I have to agree with Trey and I'm thinking of one example in particular. I'm thinking of how following somebody on Twitter or adding them on Facebook may not mean that you'll see every message that they send out. You can modify your settings, too, to choose to see certain people more often than others. Nevertheless, it makes it easier to get back in touch with people if you find out you have even more things in common. It's what allows for long-lasting relationships as opposed to more traditionally B2C interactions.

Great points from both of you.


Thank you

Thanks Michelle. Agreed. My hunch is Nate and I focus on the proverbial "different sides of the same coin," which is, ultimately, my underlying appeal: companies should KEEP and continually refine quantitative measures and ADD more qualitative research to the mix. IF they want to truly leverage SOCIAL media, then it seems to make sense to add SOCIAL scientists to the mix in increasing measure.

The disregard for and ridicule of the "soft" sciences, as revealed even in some comments on this post, need to go away. To seize upon the real opportunities afforded us via social media and emerging social technology, we must be willing to examine prevailing assumptions (may I dare say, prejudices?) about the intersection/role of commerce/the-rest-of-life.

Defending old models, "just because," will keep us in a kind of social poverty where all channels are clogged with "clutter"—information/stuff only a small percentage want.


Which means, of course, companies should probably budget more and more for social/web monitoring and analysis, huh?

Nate - It’s definitely

Nate - It’s definitely becoming more difficult for marketers to get their message heard through highly trafficked social media channels. Marketers need to readjust their efforts and focus on bringing the conversations closer to home. Creating a community site where you can interact and provide your audience with quality content will help to build brand awareness as well as provide a home for user generated content.
I think this is relevant, I recently blogged about why marketers should consider open source social publishing to create microsites:

Glad this topic is being wrangled

I spent 3-4 years running email marketing shops before moving into social media 3 years ago and some of the trends are disturbingly similar. Marketer's have been wired to the reach/response models for so long that this is hard to infuse a new mentality. The instinctive solution will be to grow followers at all costs or to increase frequency to counter the decay in responders. As pointed out the real solution is to deliver more value to the right followers then trust them to work on your behalf to expand reach. Lacking that mentality we risk turning our social communities into the next tired email house list.

All that being said I'd love to see this mathematical model built out. It goes to the heart of another issue we deal with - the spawning of many many smaller Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn communities where the base is so small that I've argued the math doesn't work well for viral behavior. Love to see evidence that this assumption is right... or wrong.

Brian Ellefritz
SAP Social Media Team


I agree with the clutter and when more and more companies get into social media, its gonna be a huge clutter and I wouldn mind an unfollow or hide it on facebook.

For twitter, I would particularly think of making a # for my company and would try using # for all promotional material rather than having say - 'Follow us on Twitter'. This thus would lead to integration of all communication in one place on the '#company'! This will also enable people those who are searching for any info on my company to get me. Thus I would get my reach with the customers querying my product/service and get my msg across.

eg: Follow #mycompany on Twitter! - This would mean. My employees can talk to people using #mycompany and spread it on their networks! :-)


Well, this is a lot of comments...

I didn't get a chance to answer Nate's response, so, quickly: we gather data from any and all sources including surveys and the like. If a data point allows us to be more accurate we use it. The challenge is to get to the point where the chance of us being right is greater than the chance of us being wrong. That's a useful position.

But useful for WHAT?

I stay as far away as I possibly can of the "New Paradigm" language. Of course it is a mistake to only focus on how many messages are being put out. That's just measuring effort. But, I assume that we are all smart marketers here. R/F is instrumental in understanding how to achieve a reasonable and realistic actual return. As in, "I want to increase share by X%; the model tells me I can do that by reaching a certain number of people a certain number of times." R/F is also a great way to manage effort--in a sense you are determining the smallest amount of effort/spend to achieve the greatest return. How could we possibly want to get rid of that?

I have worked with a number of brands who aren't massively savvy about how Twitter works, but know the answer to that question like they know their own name. Our job, if we want to make this stuff work, is to figure out how new technologies allow us to work inside of sound models.

In other words: if you want to see the math and the models, let me know. I have one for every project I work on.

Predicting the future

You hit the nail on the head: companies want the math so they can predict (control?) the future. No doubt this could be a flashpoint for new thinking.

Regardless of calling it a new paradigm, new way of thinking, or even "new" media, until marketers are willing to stop pumping stuff out long enough to seriously challenge our underlying assumptions (worldviews/paradigms) for how things are, they way things work, or the way things can be, we will, as the classic joke goes, be practicing insanity (the joke is, insanity is doing the same things over and over again yet expecting different results).

There's nothing wrong with math. It's a good thing. Stats are good, too. Discovering positive correlation between effort and desired results is rewarding, even worthwhile.

Here's the rub, it's an old one, and it'll probably live on long after this post and these comments are long forgotten (and maybe even long after we're dead): focusing on one mode of inquiry (let's say, quantitative, which has clairvoyant properties, versus qualitative, which tends more towards knowledge and understanding than predicting the future) and another.

Bottom line is, we need a rigorous application of both kinds of inquiry: we need number crunchers/quantitative scientists to help predict the future and keep systems within design tolerances (to reduce variability in outcomes) and we need researchers who will help us gain understanding and insight.

The challenge is, the existing worldview/paradigm seems to favor predicting and controlling the future over knowing and understanding the needs, perspectives, feelings, attitudes, ways of making/conveying meaning, etc. of others.

Yea verily, no one ever got fired for proving a positive return on investment (i.e., we made a more money than we spent). On the other hand, we routinely disregard the people who help us gain wisdom and understanding.

While holding onto/keeping the hard sciences (your math, for instance), let us pray for open minds to explore existing paradigms in search of "truth" that fully comports with reality. A focus on message efficiency gives us a one-wheeled chariot.

In the end...

Nate, being one that actually has to go in to the board and report results, I'd like to know of a tracking, attribution and ROI model -- on that ties to profitability. The percentage "reached" through clutter is simply a means to an end.

What I'd really like to know on the subject of clutter is the impact of cluttering up your Web site and messaging with "Follow us on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Foursquare and Flickr and RSS and Email blah blah blah." The quest to be everywhere clutters up your own ability to connect simply. Is there really a payoff in overtly promoting your everywhere presence? The worst violation of this happens at the bottom of many blog posts, where you it's not uncommon to see upwards of 10 share-this icons. But I'm also seeing this clutter seep into many homepages and mainstream advertising. Isn't one path the best?

Usability testing?

It seems many universities have usability labs. The one near me at Clemson University is well regarded for their research on how people interact with digital content. It could be Clemson or some other university usability lab has tested placement/quantity/attributes of "share" icons.

So, to answer the question about cutting through the clutter

If you really want to "cut through the clutter," then spend as much [or more] energy and money on understanding your audience as you do pumping content out to them. If you're serious about wanting to cut through the clutter, before you hire a social media expert, hire a couple ethnographic researchers who'll help you understand the members of the "target community" you seek to reach, and then wear yourself out connecting with them in the time, manner, method, media and frequency THEY want.

Yep, it's much easier/faster to buy some AdWords, establish a baseline, test a headline, test an offer, test a landing page. It's too much work with an uncertain outcome to focus on gaining understanding of people. Understanding how members of a community make meaning isn't a variable in a regression analysis.

Understanding people BEFORE you publish just might help mitigate the clutter.

Qualitative research PLUS quantitative. Research for understanding people in the present as much as for predicting outcomes in the future.

Listen. Gain understanding. Listen. Publish. Listen. Test. Listen. Modify. Listen. Retest. ∞

"Understanding how members of

"Understanding how members of a community make meaning isn't a variable in a regression analysis."

Sure it is.

Well, I suppose if we are diving into a research project, funded by the Modern Language Association, we may need a flotilla of academics. But, for the most part, we are talking about providing our consumers with some content and engaging with them around that content to generate new value. Really the same thing that Sterling Cooper was doing 40+ years ago.

Making people feel like engaging with their consumers is a huge, complex, metaphysical endeavor will only scare them away. The main reason that brands don't engage in new, social media isn't a lack of understanding some secret-squirrel shifting paradigm. They stay away because they're freaked out they will do it wrong.

You could totally hire the academics. Or you can go with your gut. They are your consumers. What do YOU think they would want? The wonderful thing about this media is that you find out very quickly if you're wrong.

Oh well…

Regression analysis is, by definition, a metric from quantitative research. Understanding how members of community make meaning is, by definition, within the field of qualitative research.

What do you mean by "secret-squirrel shifting paradigm"? It appears your post seems to confirm my statement "we disregard people who help us gain understanding," by relegating qualitative research to the, apparently lesser, world of academics. If you intended no ridicule or belittling, please clarify.

What does it mean to "get it wrong"? Does that mean "not make money," or "violate communal norms," or something else?

Going with one's gut might not be that bad of a proposition. There's much to be said in favor of action over analysis for sure. Not sure that Nate nor I were advocating shooting from the hip, as it were.

To bring it down from the world of academia, philosophy, and sociology and into the world of the practical, I'd agree with what I think you're saying, "Just do something." Or, as Nike so elegantly said, "Just do it." Agreed.

Also agree with you that this isn't that hard:
• be more concerned about listening, understanding than talking, persuading
• be human, a real human, not a corporate humanoid

So, in the end, there's much to commend what seems to be your admonition:
• don't worry about size
• don't worry about clutter
• don't worry about predictive math
• don't worry about qualitative research
• just do something and see how it works out
• if it doesn't, you'll find out quick enough so you can try something else

Published research on this topic

I want to thank everyone for the great conversation and debate on this topic - which was useful in pushing my thinking on this topic over the past couple of months. I also wanted to let you all know that we've now published a research report on the topic of social clutter. You can read about it at

Bad link?

Would you please share the link again? The link above goes to an error page.

Many thanks.


Link fixed

Apologies Trey - it's now fixed in the comment above. The correct URL is


Thanks. Great topic.

As a solopreneur, I can't quite afford Forrester research reports, but I'll certainly tweet about the blog post and the two tips you share.