The Science of Social Media

When I talk to social entrepreneurs, I’m often asked, “What should I be doing with Twitter and Facebook?”

The answer isn’t easy, because this is new territory and the map is still being drawn. We know that social media is powerful (Hello, Egypt), but how businesses can best use it is still sketchy. There’s a lot of experimentation, evaluation and adjustment.

Yesterday, I tuned into Dan Zarrella, who was discussing his research on Social Media. He just published a book, Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness: The Science, Design, and Engineering of Contagious Ideas, which is free for downloaded.

What I like about Zarrella’s approach is that it’s based not on hunches or hearsay, but on analysis of data. As a result he’s upended some conventional thinking. Here’s an overview of his findings.

Exposure. The promise of social media is that it can help you reach new people.

  1. Posting interesting content is what builds followers. Prevailing advice says that engaging in conversation (posting tweets with the @) is the route to a big following. Dan Zarrella’s data shows this to be a myth. Twitter users with lots of followers post lots of links. Takeaway: Think links rather than @.
  2. People want to follow experts. People who identify themselves authoritatively have more followers. Takeaway: Upload a profile picture. Fill out your bio. If you are a founder, author, guru, czar, say so.
  3. People who talk mainly about themselves have fewer followers and are retweeted less. Takeaway: Retweet. Post links to content that’s not your own.
  4. Posts about positive things get shared more than negative posts. People with lots of followers tend to post fewer negative remarks. Takeaway: Be a beacon upon a hill.

Attention. Getting in front of people is only part of the battle. Getting their attention is the next challenge.

  1. Your posts compete with other sources of information for attention. If you post too often, then you compete against yourself, too. Takeaway: Experiment with the number of posts per day or week. More than once per hour is definitely too much. (Are you breathing a sigh of relief?)
  2. Competition for attention varies by day and time. Prevailing wisdom says that you should post during the workweek. Dan Zarrella’s data shows that on weekends, emails get more clicks through and Facebook articles get shared more. Makes sense, we have fewer demands on our attention then. Takeaway: Try posting at different times of day and week and watch what happens.

Motivation. Once you have the attention of your followers, what’s going to motivate them to share your stuff?

  1. People enjoy a social reward when they share information that fills a void. Takeaway: Find some voids in your space. One way is see what people are asking about by running a search on Twitter for [yourkeyword] ?
  2. People need to understand what you are saying. Vigorous prose wins the day. Takeaway: Nouns and verbs, please. Hold the adjectives and adverbs.
  3. People need to know what to do. If you ask nicely, people will usually try to help you. Takeaway: Want people to retweet, comment or share? Try asking (with “please” and in moderation, of course).