Metcalfe's Law

27 May 2011

When Push Needs a Shove: How To Make Your Network Go Social Already

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Part-Time Metcalfe’s Law Enforcer; image by Iriiina via Wikimedia Commons

OK, we get it: humans are social animals, and without positive interaction, we become Unabombers or maladjusted billionaires in David Fincher films (beware of alienated Harvard men).

So while humanity desperately needs green energy and affordable healthcare and donuts that don’t make everyone look like the Michelin Man, those are so much harder to deliver. Helping people socialize — well, that’s easy, right?

With that in mind, America’s industrialists, venture capitalists, and mad scientists have invested billions of dollars and hours into building “social networks.” Since these ventures exist to share information, they naturally generate more hype than other human needs.

The question: if socializing is all the rage and it’s so easy, why do so many social ventures fail?

For every Facebook or Twitter, hundreds of similar ventures plummet straight into the deadpool. It’s one thing for a word-of-mouth-based venture to fail because it’s badly done; it’s another for a word-of-mouth-based venture to fail because no one ever heard of it. A social venture that fails to go social is like a marriage counselor who can’t maintain a relationship.

Even within the successful social platforms, most individual Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, LinkedIn groups and other micro-networks struggle to attract fans/followers/friends. You can hear the laments: “Wait, this wasn’t supposed to happen! The Word Of Mouth Marketing Association told us that ‘word of mouth’ is better than advertising! So we’re wording; why isn’t anyone listening?”

Answer: because you broke the law. Metcalfe’s Law, that is.

In brief, your social network failed to attract people because, well, it didn’t have people in it.

Robert Metcalfe, who co-invented Ethernet, stated that the value of a network is proportional to its number of users. Pretty straightforward, right? (If you want to get into the math behind this law — and the pointless debate about its accuracy — read Metcalfe’s wry post here.)

Metcalfe’s Law describes the “network effect” of telecommunications. The classic example is a telephone: If there’s only one phone in the world, it’s useful only as a paperweight. If there are two phones, now we’re talking (literally). And if there are millions of phones, then we’ve got a network that’s valuable and attractive to others.

Now let’s apply it to social media. If you have a social network with only one member, it’s as useful as non-alcoholic beer. With millions of members, you attract more users, investors, and salivating word-of-mouth gurus.

Of course, the law also works in reverse: if your social network begins to lose members, then its value in the eyes of the remaining users declines, and they in turn think of leaving. (It’s called “pulling a MySpace.”)

So you see the first and primary dilemma: If the value of a social network depends on its number of users, how do you get those users in the first place? Some tips…

1. Man Up: It amazes me how many people start a social network (page, group, etc.) but don’t use it themselves. What does that tell visitors?

I once checked out a just-launched virtual sports bar that had great animations but was completely deserted. At the least, I expected a staff of fun, engaging sports junkies to keep the conversation going. But it was as well attended as the sausage stand at a vegan conference — not even the company’s employees were regularly using it! — so it soon failed.

On a micro level, I’m stunned by the number of corporate Facebook pages and LinkedIn groups that are barely managed if not abandoned. These micro-networks rarely manage themselves (at least, not in the way you’d want). So if you start anything social, make sure you have your employees — or at least some hired guns — to get it going and keep it going.

2. Target Groups: Targeting potential users one at a time is too much work. And targeting everyone in the world is very expensive. So to get your party started in a manageable way, target a relevant group (a company, a club, a college). Remember that Facebook started with Harvard College only, which provided a solid base before the network went global. The more social-media savvy your target group, of course, the better.

3. Target Influencers: Nightclub promoters have long known that the key to drawing enthusiastic crowds is to pay celebrities to show up. Twitter ideally suited actors, athletes, and other pop culture figures because it helped them communicate with their massive fanbases with short text-messages from their phones (they didn’t have to be eloquent or even very literate to use it). The presence of the celebs naturally drew in their fans, who then transformed Twitter into a far different world than it was when it was primarily populated by techies and marketers.

So rather than targeting “ordinary” people one at a time, identify individuals who command a desirable fanbase, then entice them (or even pay them) to join you.

4. Give it a Wow Factor: What makes your social platform so exciting — not “interesting,” but outright capable of eliciting heart-palpitations and momentary breathlessness?

What’s that? You’re offering daily deals of up to 50% off on some products and services? Really?

C’mon, who isn’t?

At this point, NOT offering a deal on your website is remarkable. So you need to offer an unbelievable deal on a product that everyone craves (not just needs, like toothpaste, but desires, such as a functioning iPad made out of chocolate).

But try to think beyond sales and giveaways. Whether it’s cat videos or dark dirty secrets by former late-night talkshow hosts, you need content that generates headlines. Or at least a few tweets.

5. Make It Easy: I was recently invited to join a CEO social networking site. They offered me a discount on the membership fee, but it wasn’t the price that deterred me. It was the thought of having to build yet another profile page and having to once again invite friends and post yet more updates. I’m social networked out — and I’m not the only one.

I also noted that these CEOs were already on LinkedIn, where I’ve been developing my profile and managing my network for years. So if you want to launch a new social network for profit, consider starting a free LinkedIn group then charging for your live events, then grow from there.

6. Advertise It: This is bound to give the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association conniptions, but here’s the cold hard reality: in a frenetically competitive world, with thousands of media options, endless distractions, and extensive “rather do” lists (as in, “I’m supposed to do the dishes, but I’d rather organize my iTunes collection”), you can’t just sit quietly and hope people will seek you out. Rather, you need to stand up and stand out: proclaim your existence along with strong reasons why anyone should care that you exist. And that doesn’t mean blogging about it.

Don’t just push — shove.

What about all the hype that word-of-mouth has rendered advertising obsolete? That’s just the ranting of people who want to appear too hip for business as usual. Trusting in word-of-mouth alone to promote your business is like relying on gossip alone to score a job or a spouse. Yes, there are anecdotal examples of social ventures that grew organically like some online field of dreams — “we just built it and they came.” I’m sure you can also find people who received job offers or hot dates without ever leaving the house. But most people and corporations need to invest time, effort, and money into getting the word-of-mouth started in the first place.

One final note: it’s not just the quantity of members, it’s the quality of their activities.

Your network can boast thousands of members, but if they rarely post or — worse — post spam, the network is worthless. So Metcalfe’s Law goes beyond just initial compliance. Like any good law, it requires continuous enforcement.

Kinda makes providing jobs, healthcare, and nutritious donuts sound easy, right?

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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Marc Blackbird
Marc Blackbird
13 years ago

Great stuff Freddy. You say it so well. I started U.R. because I think that the corporate media doesn’t serve the public well. Either their entertainment or news offerings fall short and we the people want more. But for my new network to work I need an army of engaged users. Glad to have some your insights and hope to get more of this soon.

Mark Armstrong
13 years ago

Ow! I think I just heard somebody tell the emperor he wasn’t wearing any clothes!! (or at least that he needed a good fashion consultant… : )

I especially liked your points about people needing to actively contribute to their own networks, and that trusting to the mystical “word of mouth” is wishful thinking. Nice one.

13 years ago

Thank you, Marc & Mark. It does seem crazy to me that at a time when competition is more intense than ever, there are organizations out there who think being passive is a viable strategy.