As social networks mature, so must your strategy

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By Jim Mortleman

When organisers decide to use online social networking to build and nurture a community of people around an event, they have to wrestle with all sort of questions about where they should focus their attention, how much time and effort they need to put into online engagement, and how they measure the results of their endeavours.

We’ve explored many of these questions on this blog in the past, and the answers vary depending on the nature of your event and its audience. But as social networking evolves and matures, the way people are using different sites and services is changing, and that has implications for organisers.

Shortly before the turn of the decade, social networking began to experience exponential growth as the phenomenon spread from techie early adopters to the public at large. And like kids with a new toy, people played incessantly. They raced to make more and more connections, refreshed their timelines with twitchy-thumbed abandon, and fired off updates as if they were wielding a touchscreen Uzi. Getting noticed amid this frenzy of online activity was often a daunting task.

Now, though, it seems most people have got over their initial excitement. No longer does the average user feel the need to tweet every two minutes or collect a crateful of new connections every week. Of course, there’s still a minority who suffer from the online equivalent of verbal diarrhoea, but they increasingly stand out like sore thumb (a condition which, ironically, most of them probably also suffer from).

So does this mean the sceptics were right all along? That social networking is a fad that was always destined to peter out? Of course not. Social networks have simply stopped being a novelty for the majority of users and are instead evolving into an essential everyday communication tool for both business and leisure.

By any standards, the leading social networks in the UK boast impressive membership figures. Facebook’s UK user base has levelled off at just over the 31.5 million mark – about half the population. Twitter, with around 15 million UK users, is still growing – albeit much more slowly than it was. Meanwhile, LinkedIn – which has worked hard to bolster its social features over the past couple of years – is the only one of the ‘big three’ that has bucked the growth slowdown trend, climbing from 10 million UK users in 2013 to around 15 million now.

These networks have all cemented their individual characters in the eyes of users. Most professionals in the UK now understand that if they want to talk to the world at large or talk about business stuff more informally, they use Twitter; if they want to bolster their professional network or big up their expertise they use LinkedIn; and if they want to chat, play games and share pictures with far-flung family, old pals and colleagues, they use Facebook. (Okay, that’s a simplification, but it’s broadly true.) Of course, new social networks are growing up all the time, and others are dying, but none of the big three are likely to disappear any time soon.

And just because most individual users aren’t growing their connections as quickly as they did when they first discovered social networking, that doesn’t mean it’s harder to find your event’s community or engage them successfully. In fact, it’s getting easier. Today, established users don’t need to run round like headless chickens trying to find lots of new connections, because for the most part they have already found their core communities.

Now when they connect with new people or organisations, it’s generally because they think they’ll make good additions to those communities. Many of the people who would be drawn to your event have already connected with one another online. Once you find a few interested parties, it’s getting ever easier to find others, since today’s intersecting web of everybody’s online relationships (the so-called “social graph”) is far bigger, denser and more meaningful that it was just a couple of years ago.

Likewise, while people might not post as many updates on their preferred services as they did when they first joined, when they do post or share something it’s more likely to be of real interest or consequence to them and their connections.

So how does this increasing social network maturity affect your event’s social strategy? As ever, you should ensure all the content, updates and replies you post are relevant and engaging to your online community. And although you should, of course, be engaging with people regularly, don’t feel obliged to post oodles of updates just to remain visible. Equally, measuring how successful you are at community-building based on your number of followers or shares is too crude on its own. Focusing on quality over quantity is the smarter strategy.

People’s social network use is becoming increasingly pervasive, and ever more closely ingrained in their working practices. And organisers that succeed in gaining the trust and respect of their online communities will have increasing opportunities as a result. For example, by using automated tools to analyse social network data generated by your community (which, as a trusted connection, people are far more likely to share with you), you can give people a customised, highly social event experience with very little additional effort on your part. That kind of value may be harder to quantify in the short term, but ultimately it’s what will mark your shows out from those of less socially-savvy competitors.

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