Identifying — And Defeating — Social Clutter

Something amazing has happened to social media in the past couple of years: Overall adoption of social technologies has effectively reached saturation. We're now at the point where more than 80% of US online users engage with social media - and although there's been some hand-wringing over the fact social media adoption has plateaued at that level, let's keep things in perspective: 80% engage with social media! That's as many people as own a DVD player or use SMS.

This kind of scale gives marketers the potential to generate reach through social media. Sure, it's a new and unfamiliar kind of reach for many marketers - rather than just shouting uniform messages at millions of people, they must engage directly with their audiences and then hope those audiences turn around and talk to and influence millions more users. But as we've proven, this new model of reach can also provide the same kind of massive scale that the old reach models did: Just a tiny handful of Mass Connectors will create 256 billion influence impressions in the US this year.

The challenge now is that with big reach and big scale comes a big problem: social clutter. In my new report, Defeating Social Clutter, I report that US online users can average hundreds of friend connections across their social networks - with even higher numbers among younger users - and that in total this means there's an enormous amount of social content flowing toward audiences today. Despite that huge volume of content - or perhaps because of it - on average, people check their social networking feeds only once every few days. They check into Facebook - where they average the most friends - least frequently of all the major social networks.

Online users average hundreds of friend connections across their social networks

With these types of numbers, it's little surprise that marketers are telling us that the content and messages they're posting in social networks aren't necessarily getting through. It's not a new problem - a year ago I warned marketers that “in busy environments like Facebook and Twitter, the majority of your fans or followers probably won't see your messages” - but it's one that we've been hearing more and more about at Forrester. And our data indicates that the problem is only going to get worse.

So what can marketers do about it? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below - but for now we've identified two broad strategies for defeating social clutter:

  1. Go through the clutter. As a marketer there's only one way sure way cut through this tidal wave of social content: Make sure your messages are coming from a trusted source. And sadly, that source probably isn't you. As social clutter continues to grow, so will the importance of peer influence. So if you're not already actively looking for ways to identify and energize your Mass Mavens and Mass Connectors, now's the time to start. And for goodness sake, give them something genuinely interesting to talk about!
  2. Go around the clutter. Easier than cutting straight through clutter is finding a way around it - by tapping into what I call "open spaces" in social media. That could mean focusing on audiences for whom clutter is less of a problem, even if they're a secondary audience for your brand; it could mean looking harder for genuinely new content and experiences to offer, rather than spinning off of existing ideas; it could mean focusing on less-popular social networks where you'll find fewer users but have more of their attention – or even starting your own private niche social network to guarantee unfettered access to your audience. Put simply, make sure you're not just following the pack in terms of audiences, ideas, or execution - because the pack is exactly the type of social clutter you're trying to avoid.

Based on this first piece of research into social clutter, we're planning to further analyze our data and build tools to help marketers find ways around the clutter - look for specific tools to help with that problem by the end of the year. Until then, I'd love to hear in the comments below whether social clutter is stopping you from connecting to your users, and what you've been doing about.

UPDATE: I was remiss earlier for not thanking the blog commenters and Forrester Interactive Marketing community members who contributed to a remarkably vibrant discussion on this topic over the summer. That discussion helped me further my thinking on the topic -- and I'm grateful for the community's participation in my research.

Comments

Social media clutter

Surely dealing with social media clutter is no different to any other marketing clutter?

Targeted direct mail, e-mail and web content are day-to-day events for most global brand marketers; clutter de-cluttered.

Social media is no different, and the tools to de-clutter are here now, and have been for some time.

How many marketing databases have a field for twitter accounts?

How many social media monitoring tools can identify people by persona?

How many social media decisions are best on fact?

How long will social media be new?

Will those with all the answers be existing marketers, or will the rug be pulled out from underneath them by trailblazing teenagers in their bedrooms using todays tools?

SaaSy social sites

I remember beta testing friendster and thinking "why didn't I think of that?" So then I thought, what if there was a social network for business? Heh... LinkedIn? all you folks were working on this stuff all along? I got an invite to Myspace soon enough and told myself "I'm not going to add people I don't know... Myspace is going to be for my real friends." I hacked out a myspace app before there was an API and everyone was using it within like a week. I had like 10k friends on myspace so I was looking for a new social network at the time, so I ended up on Facebook... this was where I was going to limit myself to only "real friends." Is a real friend one you've met in real life??? or someone you talk to online every day? These days I meet a lot of people in real life based on internet introductions... but Facebook isn't for real friends anymore. I think i'll join Diaspora. Short URLs are beginning to pollute social web with some antisocial externalities, but sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin are making efforts to preview the URLs. I think the most anti-social face the social web has been shown is the "I'm gonna lock you in" game face that heavily capitalized startup social web sites put on when they're ready for action.

Hey Wait

Technology is no where near a saturation point of any kind.

I think the Saturation point is...

people reaching the limits of their attention span for learning. The social web is limited to what people can learn about the tools (technology) at hand.

Another learning curve / saturation point

People still need to learn how to socialize with their cell phones (oh yeah they're "mobile phones" now, since cellular technology isn't what we're using so much)... so how are they going to get on Twitter without a 10 minute pitch about why they should join? People are tired of learning everyone's new social network platform. Everyone wants to build a social vertical with themselves properly positioned in the channel, but collaboration is necessary. For a "social" web ... competition saturates at a point.

Bringing Social Media into the Real World

A next step for social media is to bring it off the phone and computer and into the real world to inform, entertain and create efficient markets (for instance, last minute deals). That space is not cluttered yet and open for the forward thinking.

Save Social Energy movement

This is the very reason why we have started the Save Social Energy movement.
You can also participate in it here http://bit.ly/advnYV
Please speak your mind and share your feelings

Being Social

There is nothing like being together, but we should also appreciate telecommunications in any form. We are so lucky to be able to converse with family, friends, customers and suppliers - and strangers - so easily and efficiently almost wherever we and they are in the world.
Spending the day in front of a computer may not be most healthy, but that is how many people now spend their lives.
It is good to learn social skills, to be able to communicate in person, to be patient and learn form everyone we meet - and it is also good to learn to read and write.

It's just too crowded

No one goes to Facebook anymore... It's just too crowded.

I love it! [:

I love it! [:

I mean the irony... I don't

I mean the irony... I don't love Facebook anymore. The affair is over.

Isn't it about relevance?

You are touching on the biggest issue for any brand/publisher - conversion. Consensus says that clickthrough rates for Facebook ads remain at 0.1% compared to search (which hoovers around 12%). Don't get me wrong, Facebook is doing everything right IMO but there is a lot more there to harvest.
One commenter (Asher Bond) mentions "reaching the limit of attention span". The issue then is to raise relevance in the content to attract (earn?) the consumer's attention. Maybe something good can come out of this?

You are kidding right?

You seem to forget that Social Media was not created as an Ad Platform. Its really an Operating System that the Ad Industry is trying to hijack and to date mostly unsuccessfully. Social Media is a Revolution in Interpersonal Communication Technology. Not a revolutionary ad network/platform. We want the clutter of people, not clutter with brand messages via Social.

I am not kidding.

I am not kidding. Klicking on ads or klicking on items in the news feed, pretty much yield the same clickback rate (0.1%). I don't want to get into a debate about what the ad industry is trying to do. I am just looking at what a user may do given the user's earlier interest in some content.