Making Sense out of Social Media

Ed Burghard“Fixing problems is the most powerful marketing you can do.” … Andy Sernovitz

The topic of social media has been on my radar screen recently.  In part because of questions I have been reading in the LinkedIn Groups I belong to.  And, because of some questions I have been getting from business managers who are trying to assess why their social media investment is not yielding the results they expected.  I think it’s probably time to take three steps back and provide some historical context about social media.  I am hoping that by doing so, it will help make sense of social media as a communication tool and increase your odds of success.

First the good news – the underlying concept of leveraging social channels for communication is not new.  The media options have certainly expanded with the advent of the internet and newer tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn (to name just a few).  But, the fundamental concept is not new. Second, the even better news – the concept has been well studied and there is a lot of information available that describe the key drivers for success.

When I was much younger, the channel was labeled as word-of-mouth.  The goal was to create sufficient loyalty for your product or service among a subset of your target audience (typically < 10%) such that they would be compelled to advocate the purchase of your product or service.  Kevin Roberts (CEO, Worldwide Saatchi & Saatchi) even coined the phrase lovemark to describe brands that have succeeded in creating “loyalty beyond reason”.  A great resource to learn more about the research behind this communication channel is WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association).

From word-of-mouth, authors of business literature shifted to calling the subject viral marketing.  Many of the learnings on word-of-mouth were codified and modeled to help us understand how to better manage the channel as part of our marketing mix.  And of course, a lot of news books were sold making the authors very happy.

One book I found exceptionally helpful is Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.  This past weekend, I decided to pull the book from my personal library, dust off the jacket cover, and then reread both my highlights and margin notes so I could share them with you.

Gladwell describes the “tipping point” is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, or the boiling point.  The magic moment when enough people have begun to communicate your message that it begins to be communicated with minimal investment on your part.  It is the moment every social media program seeks to deliver, but few actually achieve it.

One obvious next question is – How then can I increase the odds my social media effort reaches the tipping point?  Well, Gladwell provides some helpful perspective.


The tipping point is driven by the efforts of a handful of exceptionally engaged people, not by the masses.  It seems Pareto’s Principle (a.k.a. 80:20 Rule) is clearly at play in social media.  Yet, how many of us can identify who the 20% of our audience are that will help deliver the exponential reach we are seeking for our messaging?  If you think about it, we should really know these people by name.  If we don’t, we should put tactics in place to identify them.

To help us identify them, Gladwell suggests these few “special people” can be characterized as follows:

  • Connectors – Remember the game six degrees of separation?  In that game, not all degrees are equal.  It turns out six degrees of separation doesn’t look like everyone is connected to everyone else in six degrees.  In actuality, a very small number of people are connected to everyone else in just a couple steps.  The rest of us are linked through these uniquely plugged in people.
  • Mavens – These are people who are viewed by others as having important information on a subject.  Their point of view is sought after and listened to.  Mavens love to share new information, incite discussions and answer questions.  They take pleasure in solving other people’s problems.
  • Salesmen – Some people are excellent at interjecting emotion into a discussion.  They are passionate about subjects, optimistic by nature and often persuade us when we are unconvinced.  Their enthusiasm is contagious and can help stimulate loyalty beyond reason.


There are actually ways of increasing the memorability and contagiousness of a message if you design the construct correctly.  Net, it isn’t simply what you say – presentation matters.  There is a way to package information that under the right circumstances can be irresistible.  All you have to do is find that way.  In my opinion, storytelling is one way to help improve the stickiness of your message.


People are a lot more sensitive to the environment in which they hear your message than you might imagine.  For example, if your message resonates better if told by national media than in your blog, you should strive to tell it in national media.  You are not necessarily the most credible source of information for your message.  Anything you can do to increase credibility helps your efforts to reach the tipping point.

Gladwell also discovered to make your message contagious and create an epidemic you may need to create many small movements first.  Pursuing the masses isn’t always the best strategic approach.

So how do you make sense of the guidance Gladwell provides when thinking about social media?

First, recognize that the principles can be reapplied even if the tactical tools have evolved from word-of-mouth.

  • Who are your connectors, mavens and salesmen?  Do you know them by name?  Are you preferentially getting them information in advance and encouraging them to play the role they love to play?  What more can these people do for you to help increase the reach of your message and help create loyalty beyond reason for your community?
  • Are you paying attention to the way you are communicating your message?  Do you have a purposeful construct that maximizes the engagingness with and memorability of your message?  Have you explored the power of storytelling to help you speak to both the mind and heart of your target audience?  Is your message best told as news?
  • Is the context of your social media effort right to communicate your message?  Is the message best coming from you or somebody else?  What impact does this have on your number of Twitter followers, LinkedIn Group members or Facebook page fans?

Second, are you investing enough time, energy and money in the people who matter most in getting your message out and believed?  If you are interested in getting the most from your social media investment, you should probably be concentrated on doing a great job knowing and supporting your connectors, mavens and salesmen.


I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on the subject.  What word-of-mouth or viral marketing principles do you see at play in successful social media efforts or violated in unsuccessful ones?  What other reading would you suggest to somebody interested in learning more about the subject?

I’d also like to know – when it comes to Brand America do you see yourself as a Connector, Maven, Salesperson or simply an interested party.  It is time to practice what I preach and find my “special people” to help me make the Brand America message reach the tipping point.

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10 Comments so far

  1. Jorge Zuazola

    May 11, 2010

    The article makes perfect sense to such an extent that in my research I conclude that it is not a surprise that neworking companies who rely on word of mouth are now leading the pace breaking record sales for 9 out of the last 10 years.

    2010 Leadership is linking up and networking people

    Leadership is all about people from beginning to an end. This the best definition of leadership. In 2010 either you are linked in or you are left out. It is hard to believe but it is true. Networking is key. Team = Together Everybody Achieves More. Networking people means empowering them as opposed to networking with them on a daily basis and not producing any fruitful outcome.

  2. Jim Matorin

    May 11, 2010

    Great book to dust off Ed. I refer to his book all the time. Two areas: 1.) Diffusion research – how ideas spread through society since I am trying to move the dime in the foodservice industry re: hybrid marketing the balance between new and classic marketing; and 2.) The human cortex factor of 148.7. Social media is challenging that theory about how many people we actually can effectively engage with. Time will tell if 500+ on LinkedIn is the new 148.7. What do you think?


  3. Mohammed R. Shafiee

    May 11, 2010


    This is a very interesting view of effective communication via social media. It’s something I’ll definitely use – especially the 80:20 rule.


  4. Marco Monfils

    May 12, 2010

    I have by now read the article three times at different times, just to be sure I still liked it.

    I do, its excellent. Thanks for sharing.

    The more complicated will be to comb out the players from one another, there will be a lot of overlap 4 sure. I would like to add maybe a 4th category for your consideration, that of socialite.

    Like any society, there will be intermediaries, providers, givers and takers.

    We seem to be in the card shuffling stage of who is who and who can do what, and where to spend our time.

  5. Steve Fritsch

    May 13, 2010

    Another very good post. While my thoughts are not necessarily data-driven, my gut tells me this: The three primary sources/channels of information that are levereged by the general public are 1/ Their friends and colleagues 2/ The Internet & 3/ The Media. The tools available in social media create an exponential capacity to share and syndicate that “received or ingested information” to spheres of spheres of spheres of influence with amazing ease, with a never before experienced “ease” requiring very little effort. The challenge, as your post speaks to, is for the “receiver” to be able to separate wanted information from clutter and then distinguish fact & opinion…then of course decide what is relevent to share within his/her sphere. It’s truly fascinating to watch all of this stuff play out. The best part about this (at least from where I’m sitting) is that there is no such thing as a social media expert (the medium is too knew for “expert” to be defined), but rather there are only certain “degrees of enthusiasts”

  6. […] The last post on making sense of social media generated a lot of interest.  What I found most rewarding were the emails that said the post made the reader think differently about social media. […]

  7. George Walter

    June 30, 2010

    Social media. Its become so pervasive in both our professional and personal lives – you can’t avoid hearing/reading/talking about it. Its’ future is being hotly debated, and where it will evolve is a mystery. We only know that it WILL change. Regardless, social media has become one of our primary methods of communicating with each other.
    – Lisa Gilpin, Chairperson 313 digital

    This is a very true yet very sad statement about our society. Our personal and business lives have gone from a personal connection to digital connection. What ever happened to personal face to face engagement? I guess that concept is evolving whether it’s facebook or skype.

    Loved the blog. Keep coming back to two things:
    1. Stickiness of the message
    2. Talking to sales people, mavens or connectors

    Stickiness and your audience certainly go hand in hand -great story telling is certainly a great way to grab attention – but knowing who your audience is certainly is crucial since in a way especially on Facebook you are intruding into their personal space. If you don’t get that message right, you will lose any viral advantage you had hoped for.

    As far as I know, there really is no way to tell even if you identify the three core groups who aree actually managing that profile. I work at Inc. magazine and what we have found is alot of our readers/company owners who have facebook or other social media pages (and would probably fit into one if not all of the key categories described in the blog), are not managing the profile. Thier assitant or someone else in the company is handling that. How do you plan for that? You’ll spend a lot of time finding the right group that fits your profile,, getting your messaging the way you need it to be and it turns out the person behind the curtain is not the right person at all?

    The best laid plans can back fire. There is no denying the power of social media- Yelp! is a great example – but harnessing the power of this beast will be a challenge that will reap big rewards for the marketer that figures it out…if it’s even possible.

  8. […] Making Sense of Social Media (Part 1) […]

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  10. […] Making Sense Out Of Social Media […]

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