How many followers equals critical mass?
Everyone wants more followers in social media.
At the same time, marketing experts are shouting at the top of their lungs that the actual number of followers doesn’t really matter; it’s all about having the right followers. And this is all accompanied by anxious whispers in the office hallways about who has bought their followers and who hasn’t.
Does your number of followers matter?
Critical Mass in Social Media
Well, the number of followers doesn’t really matter — to a certain degree. You could have 100,000 fake followers on Twitter and it wouldn’t matter if your statistics tells you that 5,000 saw your last tweet because they were all bots anyway.
Or, you could have 16,000 followers like I do, but I’m not as active there as I once was — which the algorithm doesn’t like. As a contrast, I have half my Twitter volume of followers on Instagram, where I am active at the moment, but thousands of percent more engagement.
The actual number of followers matter very little.
In fact, having too many followers can be a problem if your brand loses its momentum. If you get 100 Facebook likes per week on average, then it’s better to have 50 fans (200% engagement) than 5,000 (2% engagement).
So, all those marketing experts aren’t wrong per se. But there’s still something to be said about simply having too few followers as a business.
Return on Engagement vs. Following Size
If a business hires one person to run all of its social channels and this person cost 2,000€ per week in total (including taxes, rental fees, content- and software licensing etc.) — how many followers must this employee engage each week to go break even?
There are many ways to attribute value to social media marketing and the right choice depends on the business itself. You could attribute value to certain behaviours; a popular path is to calculate average value per generated lead. E-commerce vendors can often connect their online marketing efforts to online sales quite easily. The most common approach is to calculate the alternative cost for the brand’s organic reach. How much would it cost to reach all those people with advertising? This is in many ways an outdated (and hated) model, but that’s beside the point for this blog post; the point is that there are better or worse ways to attribute value to your online marketing efforts — but it’s something that most businesses have to do.
If you have to reach 100,000 people to convert customers to a value of 2,000€ per week, then it actually matters how many fans you actually have at the beginning of that week.
Your Brand’s Critical Mass of Quality Followers
A brand’s total average organic reach tends to be surprisingly stable week after week. Social network algorithms change, but usually not that fast.
Engagement rates tend to fluctuate with content quality and competition, but usually not that much. Social follower volumes tend to go up in most cases, but usually not that much. Conversion rates varies with traffic quality and UIX, but usually not that much.
In these scenarios, it matters whether you start off the week with a big enough bulk of social media followers or not. You can (and probably should) pay for some of your weekly reach, but every cent must be earned back into your business — with interest! — sooner or later.
This allows us to approximate a specific number of followers you need to go break even financially. This number of followers is what is referred to as critical mass. If we assume that conversion rates and follower reach ratios to stay reasonable stable, we can approximate how many followers a brand needs to go break even.
Conversions needed to hit break even / the average follower reach ratio = your brand’s critical mass of followers
For me, I’ve estimated that I need one quality lead every three weeks to healthily sustain my freelance business. To get this from blogging, tweeting, and gramming alone, I need to start every week with a weekly base of 15,000 quality followers — out of which about 8% will see at least one of my updates. Hence, 15,000 social media followers1 is the critical mass to start the week for my freelance business.
Approximating your brand’s critical mass in social media is no exact science — and it’s no guarantee. But there’s a much deeper, and much more business critical, point to be made about a brand’s critical mass in social media.
Strategies Before and After Reaching Critical Mass
Almost every brand who start out in social media will be loosing money. This is simply because their social accounts haven’t yet reached critical mass. This leads us to the following key insights:
1. At the start, invest heavily in programmatic advertising.
It’s important to invest in aggressive social media strategies to quickly reach critical mass. In typical cases, you’ll need to invest in programmatic advertising to grow.
2. Accept a negative ROI in the beginning.
Key stakeholders must be made aware of the critical mass challenge. They must get a chance to understand how investments in this space scales.
3. Don’t try to cheat the system with ghost followers.
If you acquire ghost followers, your conversion rates will go down, and you’ll be forced to acquire even more followers.
4. When you reach critical mass, invest in quality.
Typically when you reach critical mass, the brand’s aggressive investments must cool off. Now you should focus on engagement quality instead of growth.
Bonus resource: Avoid Ghost Followers
Bonus Resource: The Follower Contract
- Obviously, not all social accounts are equally valuable to a business. For me, blog readers and blog subscribers far outweigh Facebook and Twitter followers, for instance.