For every person who leaves a comment or answers a survey or poll question, there are roughly 99 who do nothing in response — they don’t share, comment or link to your content from their blog.
For most people online, social networking is still a spectator sport.
We can definitely reason that the participation on any given website or social network influences those who do not participate, but how they may be influenced by that interaction could vary more than we think.
Are Lurkers the Dark Matter of the Internet?
SAS CMO Jim Davis and I had a great discussion at the SAS Global Forum last week in Seattle where the company launched its new Social Media Analytics platform. [Disclosure: I was invited by the company to attend the event free of charge and they fed me dinner.]
Since SAS is all about data, the company sees the enormous potential for business intelligence within amount of data people like you and I are generating via the social web. But, I wanted to talk about what we can’t see in social networks and my concern that some companies might try to exert too much control over sentiment even if it wasn’t in their best interest.
It was an interesting conversation and one I won’t soon forget. The answer, it seems, is organization-wide integration of data.
Even though social media is extremely important for a company’s online presence and their ability to adapt to their operations to the demand of the real-time web, there are still way more people consuming than creating.
Most estimates conclude 1% of community members contribute content. I believe this percentage is higher when we think of sharing links and other social behaviors, but the majority are just searching and consuming.
How do we measure the impact all of this data must be having on the silent majority, aka the lurkers, and vice versa?
How Much Negative Sentiment is Actually a Bad Thing?
We all love a good debate. Lovefests between like minded individuals get boring fast, especially for third-party obsevers. Even the Brady Bunch would occasionally scrap.
Conflict can sometimes have the potential to keep things interesting, as long as it illustrates a greater issue or larger truth (and sometimes even when it doesn’t). Getting everyone possible to express positive sentiments about your company, product or yourself isn’t always desirable, but finding the right people to be customers, stakeholders and partners is, right?
My point here is that sometimes when we’re online, we forget we’re on stage. Although we can focus on the interaction, the interaction is public and potentially long lasting.
How much value will lurkers observe in social interactions that net nothing but good vibes? Will it be real enough for them to trust?
My worry isn’t about long-standing negative impact to reputation (something I think still keeps too many businesses sidelined with regard to online social interaction), but rather how this focus on changing sentiment might eclipse real business goals. Can businesses get comfortable with having a point of view and tolerating divergent opinions?
If your company’s goal is to be popular, great. If your goal is to be successful, well that’s probably something different.
Mentions or Impressions, or Both?
Silos don’t work with respect to communications OR data.
These lurkers may not be leaving comments or uploading profile pics, but they may be doing things like purchasing, opting into premium subscriptions and conducting purchase-related research for things they will ultimately buy offline.
Research suggests lurkers may also do things like search for branded keywords once they’ve encountered some of your marketing information in search, social networks, or encountered some of your display ads. This means they’re much more likely to search for the name of your company, product or service after encountering your marketing messages elsewhere online. If we attribute this behavior to search alone, we’re missing a big piece of the puzzle.
Maybe online ads really do work, just not always in the way we think they should (via a click).
I’m just thinking out loud here, but even if everything online is ultimately measurable, business is still driven by human behavior; and human behavior is rarely understood in a one-to-one measurement where the causes and effects line up perfectly like dominos.
No matter how hard we try, data will never be a substitute for insight, and forcing sentiment change should never be a business goal, especially when it goes against the overall strategy.
I think it’s time we stop looking for easy answers and quick wins with social media and start asking better questions. What do you think?
Photo Credit: Argonne National Laboratory