What Counts When Counting Fans

Posting this morning on the Dachis Group Collaboratory. Inspired by my colleagues’ fierce and firey prose, it’s time to start blogging again.

Social thought leaders have formed a consensus around fan counting: don’t do it. The argument: if you measure what you manage, and you are only measuring fan counts, then you might rely on short term acquisition tactics that fail to result in long term engagement.

And yet we hear every day that while a Social Strategy Director is focused on engagement, the Senior VP or CMO and even members of the board want to understand the plan to reach higher fan and follower acquisition benchmarks.

But maybe that Senior VP, CMO, and board member is responding intuitively to the what fan counts mean for a brand. They are after all trained to look at a brand compared to a competitive set. Senior executives think about the metric of market share a great deal, both share of revenue, and share of profit. When a CMO sees an emergent competitor outflank her own brand on Facebook by a large order of magnitude, she knows something is wrong. After all, that competitor brand actually has more friends.

Old school metric: brand relevance

When fan counts across a competitive set differ wildly from market share rankings, this is a potential signal that leading brands are suffering a relevance gap. Brand relevance is an old school metric employed by large scale brand managers. Typically measured as a tracking study through survey methods over time, brand relevance determines whether the existence of a brand predisposes someone to pay a higher price, and become loyal, repeat customers. If a brand is relevant, the investment in brand building will have a commercial impact by affecting the customer’s buying decision.

David Aaker, one of the greatest brand thinkers of our time, came up with these simple conditions for creating brand relevance:

1. A product or service category (or subcategory) exists
2. A customer segment has a perceived need or desire for that category
3. The segment sees a particular brand as being material to that category

For example, a market share leader of dish washing fluid might be alarmed if survey results revealed increased consideration and willingness to purchase an upstart dish washing fluid competitor. Now, with the public focus group that is social, and you have a proxy for brand relevancy. If that upstart dish washing competitor now has three times the fan base as the dominant market share leader, then fan count is a signal of decreasing brand relevancy in a category.

So, what do you do if you are a social strategist sitting on a brand that is a market share leader, but whose presence on the Facebook and Twitter leaderboard is not dominating the category? Senior execs are pressuring you to do something, anything to have the size of your social tribe reflect your position in the marketplace.

When you are finally given that multi million dollar budget, but only have 10,000 followers across all of your social channels, don’t be afraid to plan a fan acquisition effort as one of your first projects. Couple acquisition with a deep listening strategy to diagnose why your brand is lagging in social, and determine which tactics, content, and programs succeed in attracting a likeminded fan base of loyalists and advocates. Count your fans, count them every day, but get to know who they are, and how the actions you take in your company affect the quantity and quality of the conversation.