Social Media: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

As social media professionals, we often like to imagine ourselves as iconoclast pioneers. To a large extent, 2014 has decisively disabused us of that illusion. We now have more than a decade of rigorous research by major think tanks that leads us to the same inevitable conclusion: On social media, the same basic rules of mass media still apply-very little ever goes viral, and the best way to achieve mass awareness and adoption is by securing the broadest possible reach. At the same time, the continuing evolution of the major social networking platforms is making it increasingly difficult to achieve mass reach solely through purely organic and earned media strategies.

Among the leading researchers in the study of how content spreads is Duncan Watts, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research. Watts has spent the better part of the past 15 years investigating the mechanics of social networks and collective dynamics. He and his colleagues have consistently found that most instances in which content achieves widespread popularity across social networks can be traced to a single mass diffusion event. In his latest research, Watts and his team looked at approximately 1 billion diffusion events on Twitter-the largest dataset of this type to date. The findings, consistent with Watts' previous studies, were that 99% of tweets were either not retweeted or were retweets by followers of the originator.

Of course, true structural virality does occur, but it is too rare to be relied on for success in one's commercial endeavors. Instead, Watts has proposed what he calls "big seed marketing" in which an initial seed with mass reach-achieved either through paid media or owned media-drives mass awareness and/or adoption. Karen Nelson-Field, a senior research associate at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, provides support for Watts' big seed strategy in Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing. In her book, she presents several studies including about 1,000 videos on YouTube that yielded results similar to those of Watts-namely, that mass adoption of content across social networks is almost always driven by a single mass reach event. Moreover, the evolving dynamics of Facebook and Twitter-as well as the imperatives of their respective business models-are hardwiring this mass media reality into the structure of dominant social networking platforms.

At the beginning of the year, there was widespread panic across the social media sphere regarding the seemingly plummeting organic reach on Facebook. This was confirmed directly by Brian Boland, Facebook's ads product marketing team lead, in June when the buzz about declining reach attained such a level as to prompt a response. Boland assured businesses that, while organic reach was declining, great organic content would still reach fans.

Meanwhile, Twitter began reporting actual impressions on organic tweets for the first time. Interestingly, the story of declining reach was remarkably similar to that of Facebook despite the fact that, unlike Facebook's newsfeed, the Twitter feed is unfiltered by an algorithm. Twitter has yet to release official statistics, but the perception is that the average percentage of a user's followers who see her tweets is roughly the same as that of a Facebook page's fans who see the page's posts.

The good news is that growing organic reach is still possible. The social media analytics firm Shareablee provided strong evidence for this in May with the publication of a widely circulated white paper. By analyzing every public user interaction on 150 Facebook properties across key verticals, the company found that the best way to drive reach was to consistently increase user engagement. Interestingly, this reflects one of Watts' findings from his latest paper, which was that the best predictors of whether a user's content would be retweeted are follower size and the degree to which a user's content had been retweeted historically.

In social media, we tend to favor pundits who burst onto the stage making exciting declarations about the demise of traditional marketing and promises of marketing success at little cost. If there is one key takeaway from 2014, it's that, unfortunately, the truth is much more mundane. While engagement is obviously critical to social media success, the same mechanisms that drive success in traditional media continue to hold sway.