Do fans and followers really count?

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One of the most popular new marketing tactics on Facebook is to entice members to “like” brands in order to gain access or favors. The New Yorker is the most recent big brand to give this a try. Last month it concealed a feature article behind a wall that could only be penetrated by “liking” its Facebook page. Its success at attracting 16,000 new “fans” was impressive, but only if those passers-by can be converted into loyal readers. B-to-b companies are also into the numbers game. One client told me his company's Twitter follower count is an agenda item at every board meeting. Another said it's a metric in her performance goals. This simplistic fascination with big numbers is old-media thinking that misses a key point: The unique value of digital channels is audience interaction. Eyeballs don't equate to engagement, and running up your numbers is pointless without a conversion plan. Want to rack up 5,000 Twitter followers in a couple of days? Search for “people who auto-follow” or pay $20 a month to a service that sets up fake user accounts. You'll quickly amass a large following of people who have no value. The reason the numbers game is so appealing is because it's a simple and comfortable metaphor that harkens back to the days of Arbitron ratings. Digital marketer Mitch Joel relates an interaction with an exec who had been charged with collecting 50,000 “likes” on Facebook. The reason? “That's how many likes our competitors have and it's frustrating our CEO,” he said. Some ROI. Research has shown that fewer than 20% of visitors who “like” a business page on Facebook ever return. Former Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray titled a blog post last summer “What Is the Value of a Facebook Fan? Zero!” “Likes” and followers are simply a Web 2.0 evolution of the equally pointless “hits” and “page views” metrics of the early Web. People who will never do business with your company are worse than useless; they're a drain on resources. One media company I worked with purchased websites that collectively delivered 9 million monthly visitors, none with any spending power. The revenue from that army was dwarfed by a focused site with 1/20th as many visitors, all of them buyers. There's no harm in juicing your numbers with stunts and promotions, but think about how you'll nourish those contacts for the long term. Better yet is to direct management attention toward metrics that reflect appreciation and engagement: comments, shares, repeat visits, retweets, page views per visit, inbound links, subscriptions, content downloads and third-party reviews. If followers are all you care about, then be ready to translate that into something that matters.
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