What does success look like?

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Success is a number. If you can’t measure it isn’t worth the afford. But what number do you look for? How can success be measured and what does it look like in a social media context?

The small-world network

A small-world network is a network in which most nodes can be reached by a small number of hops, thus making it easy for users and/or consumers to go back to the original source of an information and evaluate its authenticity. People trust information from friends or colleagues. They do not trust information from anonymous sources or from brands pushing out their messages without listening to consumers. This concept of perceived credibility and the fact that perceived credibility is directly related to the degree of node proximity within a network leads to the conclusion, that communication in a social media context and thus success is mainly driven by two key factors:

  • Do users feel like the social network is extending their real life in a useful way? This may be the key factor behind platform stickiness. Thus a sticky and attractive platform is more likely to catalyze successful communication.
  • Is it easy to copy or re-establish connections between nodes that do already exist in real life? This would create multiple sources of information that are of a high perceived credibility to a user. With many seemingly credibly information sources that spread the same word, communication is more likely to be successful.

What separates social media and the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon from the ancient days of interactive communication is the fact, that platforms and networks work as an extension to your real life contrasted by being a second, virtual world to live in. Social networks are built by a deeply intrinsic motivation to stay in touch with people you already know well from real life encounters or – and that being postulated as the main force behind cloud communication services like Twitter – an extrinsic motivation to get in touch with people you would like to know better in real life (see also).

Both motivational models share a common denominator: the real life part. A social network without a profound effect in or a strong push from real life will not satisfy users. Building successful communication strategies for social media should therefor take this into account and try to bridge the gap between reality and virtuality.

It’s the reality, stupid.

Is it possible to measure success in an objective and analytically sound way? Are there any numbers, any key performance indicators to the apparent success of communication strategies in social media? What about followers? Ashton Kutcher is followed by a rough number of 1.9 million users. Does this make him successful? Ashton Kutcher has already been more or less successful as an actor. Isn’t his status as a real world VIP directly influencing his ostenisve success on Twitter? How could you translate his virtual »success« into real-life context?

1.9 Million people reading your thoughts is not more or less a success than one single person reading your thoughts. One single person actively executing what you order, actively promoting what you have to say in real world should be counted more successful than even 3 million people passively drooling to your info trash.

You could argue that success is not about real life effects because its measurement is roughly the same as with traditional communication. Hence you could go on counting clippings in different blogs, count mentions on profiles or on Twitter. You could also observe on the spreading behaviour of a viral clip. But this is all virtual. It is the reality, stupid. A viral clip spread across thousands of websites, blogs and video portals should – and that is it’s only legitimation – finally pay off in terms what effect it has in reality.

By any measures

Of course – we should not let go on measuring key performance indicators. Visits, hits, followers, spreading paths, dynamic network analysis – they all provide meaningful and important insights into user behaviour and the dynamic structure of communication, it’s »flow«. But what it all boils down to is, that you shouldn’t plan your communication strategies around what numbers you want to reach. Plan your strategies with the effects in mind that you want your communication to have in reality. You want thousands of teenagers to wear your logo on their shirts? Fine, than go, find a strategy that makes them do that and don’t mind how many people will follow you or your corporate profile on Twitter.

Put into simple words by a friend of mine: »A million people jumping out of their windows after you shut down your MySpace account – this is success.«

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