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Popularity: the shiniest metric of all

September 4, 2012

crowd shadow

[Part 2: Popularity: the perks of pursuit]

In working with clients on the sometimes confusing area of metrics, I show them how popularity can guide decisions.

But popularity has a dark side. It whispers to our vanity and seduces us into pursuing it instead of excellence.

Popularity can be bought. Customers often judge the quality of a product based on its popularity. Given the choice between two items of the same price, a shopper might pick the one with the bigger following.

In digital marketing, the brand with the crowd on its side might actually be very unpopular.

For example, Twitter users can buy thousands of followers for a few dollars. These fake followers never tweet, never follow anyone else. They create an aura of popularity around anyone willing to pay the price and break the rules.

The scary part is that an unscrupulous person could also buy thousands of followers for anyone else’s Twitter account in a means to discredit that user (the potential to be one of the dirtiest campaign tricks available online, my pal Ike Pigott suggested).

And when potential customers see that inflated follower count, they may choose that brand, company or person without checking to see from where that popularity came. Is a buyer getting the real deal or a mere pretender?

(This is how companies select consultants, speakers and experts, so I have an obvious stake in weeding out the con artists.)

StatusPeople, a social media management company, has a new tool that samples followers in Twitter accounts to determine how many are real or fake. The free Fake Follower Check requires a Twitter account and a takes only a few seconds to report results.

For my account @WadeOnTweets, it reports that of my 4,562 followers, 2 percent are fake, 10 percent are inactive, and 88 percent are good.

Fake Follower Check score

Having an audience of fakes is like playing a concert to thousands of cardboard cutouts in Carnegie Hall. But to the uninformed, it looks like a sold-out performance.

Popularity inflates egos. Companies and people with big followings sometimes get big egos as well. After all, if thousands of people hang on our every word and blog post and tweet, we must be very important, right?

The buzzword these days is influence, a fancy way of saying “popular.” After all, a guru can’t have influence over followers without popularity at the core. The silliness of popularity has its origin in the social shark tank of high school. We are all conditioned to some degree by those teenage years keeping score of who’s up and who’s down.

That silliness has manifested itself in the adult world as Klout, a service that purports to measure digital influence though an often-changing formula.  I could announce that my Klout score is 64.41, but that number has no meaning, even if compared to other scores. It’s no more helpful than announcing my E-meter reading is φ4J.

And yet, researchers and marketers make a tremendous effort to quantify influence and popularity. Is it rooted in the number of followers, the number of retweets, the time spent on site or the click rate? Is the person who influences a small set of power brokers more popular than another person who holds sway over a million “nobodies”?

The problem isn’t necessarily who’s most popular. The problem is when a person’s (or a company’s) sense of popularity overwhelms common sense. It leads to lazy thinking. It leads to as sense of “Everyone thinks I’m right and so … I must be right.”

That can be a disastrous poison. The antidote is humility, always. (And in my case, some self-deprecation, too.) And for good measure, skepticism can be helpful, too.

Popularity shouldn’t be equated with level of quality. Or, what is popular isn’t always what is best (and vice versa).

The most popular post on this site (or on any of my sites) isn’t necessarily my best post. It may be the most unique one in terms of SEO traffic and keywords. It may be the luckiest post in terms of timing and subject.

Birmingham Magazine recently published its Best of Birmingham 2012 poll results. In this case, best is clearly in the eyes of the beholder. As it was in 2011 and 2010, when I won Best Tweeter.

Did I actually think I was the best then? No. I said James Spann (@spann), meteorologist for ABC 33/40, was and is the best tweeter. And he won the category this year, deservedly so. Do I think I’m the worst tweeter because I didn’t show up on the list? No, of course not.

My value as a tweeter isn’t rooted in this or any other popularity contest. It’s flattering when I win, but the real value comes from sharing interesting, informative or funny stuff every day. Each follower has her own perception of the value of those daily tweets from me. If the perceived value goes down, she unfollows.

Having run my fair share of readers’ polls over the years, I know first-hand that what is popular isn’t always what’s best. Some companies stuff the ballot box themselves, or beg their followers to vote on their behalf. If they feel their reputation needs such a severe ego boost, not much can be done to stop the campaigning.

But popularity, even earned popularity, can be fleeting. What crowds adore today can easily be ignored tomorrow in this disposable culture.

Chasing popularity often means sacrificing the pursuit of enduring excellence. That misguided choice can do a lot more damage in the long run than just a bruised ego.

Photo: kismihok (CC)

• • •

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2012 1:36 pm

    Thanks for the post – great perspective. Popularity is a strange thing (especially online), because in some crowds, you might feel very popular, and in others, completely unknown. Therefore, putting stock in it is a roller-coaster that never fully satisfies.

    • September 4, 2012 2:33 pm

      That is an excellent way to put it, Rachel. Wish I had thought of it.

    • September 6, 2012 9:42 am

      I agree with Rachel’s assessment, and it’s one I’ve heard comic book writer Brian Bendis use to describe his own popularity — in everyday life, few people have any idea of who he is, but when he attends Comic Con, he’s suddenly a superstar. Those circles matter, and if you go around acting like a big shot outside of them (or inside, really), you’ll be in for a rude awakening.

  2. September 8, 2012 12:10 am

    Unfortunately the numbers usually reflect parameters used by algorithms which are part of the way social media programming decides what people see more of. These interactions provide a purely mechanical method for parsing out posts and news feeds. There is no quality judgement. I noticed this myself early on and decided to observe certain strategies in order, specifically to provide more visibility for my own agenda. It has aided me greatly in getting the word out about local music and what we’re doing. I watched for many years as, in many cases, fairly self serving content was allowed to flourish specifically because some people who wanted to satisfy advertisers, or at least not anger them, considered it to be “quality,” So it’s a double edged sword in my opinion. As for Twitter and Klout: I don’t have many followers so have no idea why my Klout score is so high. I communicate primarily through Facebook and push my blog and other media there. I think that’s where most people are and unfortunately the Globonet is currently mob rules. Hopefully somehow we will strike a balance between those who purport to be our filters for quality and the mindless numbers game we have now. I just try to make my communications useful and engaging and try to interact more than dictate.
    . .

    • September 8, 2012 11:19 pm

      That is a smart way to use social media for marketing.

  3. September 8, 2012 10:11 pm

    Great article. I had no idea people could “buy” followers. That’s just wrong. I did your fake tweeter thingamajig and my score came back decent – zero fakers, 5% inactive and the rest was all good. Thanks for that tool. Although, I’m not all that much into making my mark with Twitter. It’s fun though.

    • September 8, 2012 11:17 pm

      Even worse, they can buy fake followers for themselves or for others without their permission. Thanks for your comment, Carol.

Trackbacks

  1. Popularity: the perks of pursuit « Birmingham Blogging Academy
  2. The 2012 index to posts « Birmingham Blogging Academy

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