What’s the biggest problem with social media that almost nobody is talking about? Information overload. Successful social media is based on heavy sharing and high membership. Yet, paradoxically, the more sharing is done, and the more members a network has, the less valuable social media becomes. Follow this example.
Let’s say you’re an average social media user, with 50 Facebook friends, 75 LinkedIn contacts, membership in 5 LinkedIn groups, and you’re following 50 Twitter accounts. These are modest numbers – many fans of social media have much higher numbers than these. Indeed, LinkedIn lets you follow up to 50 groups.
From my experience, social network activity (how much people post) varies widely. Some people post very frequently, some never post, and everyone else is somewhere in the middle. (This doesn’t even take into account the social media holdouts – people who for reasons of personal preference, security concerns or workplace requirements cannot join these networks).
The Gallup Organization has gone beyond my unscientific sampling. They surveyed over 17,000 individuals on their use of social media, and found that individuals fall into eight distinct categories, or what Gallup calls “typologies”. A more detailed analysis is contained here, http://gmj.gallup.com/content/149411/Making-Social-Media.aspx, but basically they found that about a third of the respondents are active in networks, with a third inactive. Not surprisingly, the active third tends to be younger, a group which marketers are calling “Digital Natives”. (The older group is called ‘Digital Immigrants”, implying they were exposed to a digital world later in life.)
With your 50 Facebook friends, maybe only 15-20 post regularly. What happens when your network grows, and more people start posting as the population ages?
As more and more people and companies get involved with social media, I’m finding myself overwhelmed with information overload. The early adapters in social media have been successful in getting me to follow them, and so my content streams are quite busy. Do-it-yourself tools have replaced many Web Masters – it’s never been easier for non-techies to post thoughts, photos, and videos, Tweet, blog and share “likes” and +1’s with a single click.
Already there’s no way for me to read every status update or post that appears in my networks. I’d have to check my feeds three times a day, and even then might have to scroll down several pages to catch everything. Things are getting lost in the noise. Marketers are realizing this, and adjusting by posting more frequently. This only adds to the congestion.
In its early days of launching groups, LinkedIn tracked online activity and realized that most people who joined these groups don’t follow the discussions regularly. To stay visible, LinkedIn started sending emails with daily discussion topic summaries to the members. Even then, most people who joined multiple groups cannot keep up with the conversations, and the group hosts are now trying weekly summaries in the hopes of making these group updates more meaningful. It may already be too late.
Salon recently had an interview with David Weinberger, author of “Too Big To Know”, where he discusses information overload, not specifically related to social media but nonetheless relevant. http://www.salon.com/2012/01/01/are_we_on_information_overload/singleton/ The availability of more information than ever before, and failed filtering technology has put us in a crunch. This threatens the majority of social media.
So how to overcome this gloomy scenario? If you’re a consumer, the solution is already starting to appear through the proliferation of easier, do-it-yourself filters. If you’re a marketer, the solution is to raise the bar and make your social media content and presence more meaningful. These two items are related.
The social media sites that will survive data overload are the ones which give people the best control over the information they want to consume.
Twitter has a user created list feature that allows people to group their feeds into meaningful categories, so the Tweets aren’t all lost in a big random jumble. You can read about your industry one minute, and then on a break read your sports feeds or other entertainment feeds.
Facebook, probably more because of the threat from Google+ than anything else, recently allowed users to segment their networks into family, friends and acquaintances, with the implication being that you can filter out feeds from people you aren’t as close to. On a related note, I’ve personally noticed a great reduction in Farmville and Mafia Wars gaming updates in Facebook. User complaints have been heard.
LinkedIn has very extensive sorting and filtering features to find contacts, particularly if you are a paying customer, but the network updates are still unfiltered. I can keep you from seeing my updates about mundane items like profile corrections, and interest updates, but you can’t block these updates unless you unlink me. Don’t be surprised if LinkedIn adds more filtering options at a later date. (Update – thanks to Sven Johnson for pointing out that you can now indeed hide posts from people in LinkedIn without unlinking. There’s a hide button that appears next to each of your contacts’ posts when you do a mouseover. I assume this feature isn’t promoted very much because blocking content reduces the value of LinkedIn connections).
As a professional marketing advisor, one of my pet peeves is marketers who see social media as an opportunity to post every mundane bit of company information onto social media, simply to keep the funnel filled and create a sense of activity in the social networks. This weakens the social media relationship between vendor and customer, while also diminishing the overall value of the platforms for everyone else.
As a recent example, one of the networking gear companies I follow posting a highly technical definition of an obscure technical feature found on one of their products. No information about a cool application using the technology, nothing related to how that feature might give the company’s product an advantage, just a clinical definition that could be found by Googling in three seconds. Other scofflaws post things like “Read how our customer gave us a great testimonial today” with a link to a self congratulatory note. Really? If you want me to stop what I’m doing, you should at least reward me with something special. How about a case study about a unique problem your technology solved, with the testimonial at the end?
Gallup studies have shown that social media doesn’t create brand loyalty – it only gives a forum to brand loyal customers. If this is ever going to change, companies need to be more selective about what they post, and focus beyond serving a narrow audience with content of limited appeal.