Social Networks: Many Friends Isn't Always More Valuable

Fewer, more meaningful, relationships are better when building an online community.

Rachel Happe, Contributor

June 27, 2011

3 Min Read

We live in a world of abundance, with too many gadgets, too much information, too much content, and too many "friends." More is no longer as valuable as it once was, but humans are still driven to hoard. The result is that we become overwhelmed.

Businesses do the same thing. When we go to build a community, we want to gather as many people as we can, as quickly as we can. But the question I heard repeatedly from marketers at the South By Southwest conference earlier this year was, "What do you do once you have a million Facebook fans?" My answer: not very much.

In a world of too much, doing less but making sure the less is meaningful is often more valuable. But it's more difficult to do than it sounds. Relationships take time, and they rarely improve with incessant pestering. But they do improve quickly with deep, meaningful exchanges, and these deeper relationships can even be sustained during periods of inactivity.

I see a lot of conversations from community managers who feel like they need to be available 24/7, and I often wonder whether they're really building deep relationships. Good relationships are forgiving of the small delays that are critical to maintaining the sanity and quality of employees' work.

Using social media to hoard friends doesn't really get you very far these days because people friend quite casually, so it doesn't really mean anything. True, meaningful relationships are today's scarcest resource. They're the mechanism by which you'll achieve more complex outcomes. They'll also help you dominate your market because good relationships create barriers to change that are stronger than any economic incentive.

Isis Parenting is building a business around relationships with parents through its in-person education classes. The company also has physical and online retailing that's a curated list of a select number of recommended products for its customers. It uses online social channels to maintain and extend those relationships while reinforcing its expert perspective. Isis Parenting's Facebook page is full of rich conversations. Throughout its marketing, content, services, and products, Isis Parenting has layered on expertise that's of high value to its target customer--new parents anxious about the well-being of their babies and looking for a single source of reliable information, products, and services.

In contrast, American Airlines seemed to be looking for short-term gains when it gave frequent fliers miles in exchange for "friending" the airline on its Facebook page. The company treats the Facebook page as a channel for promotions and information about itself. This drives some engagement, but to what end? Does it make anyone feel any closer to American Airlines since the airline seems to be replicating offers from other channels?

In my opinion, American would be better served focusing its efforts on topics of concern to frequent fliers--the best airport restaurants, best routes, and best gadgets for traveling, for example--and asking fliers to contribute input of their own. That approach would target both American's customers and its competitors' customers, and would make the airline a source for more than a transaction. American isn't using the huge potential of social channels to change the dynamics and cost structure of its business.

Using social methodologies is far from free, so if you aren't using them to their full potential, it might be worth rethinking how and why you're using social media, since it also introduces new risks. At last check, there were a lot of negative comments on the American Airline page. Sometimes the risks just aren't worth the cost.

So what game are you playing? The short-term land grab or the long-term strategic advantage? It's yours to choose.

Rachel Happe (@rhappe) is a co-founder and principal at the Community Roundtable, a peer network for social media, community, and social business leaders. You can reach her at [email protected] or 617-271-4574.

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