Social Media and Numbers – Why They Don’t Matter

While I know many people on govloop are heavily interesting in Web 2.0 and the open government movement with Gov 2.0, the fact remains many people still fear social media. I originally created this article so people involved with Twitter realize that your follower counts don’t matter, but this is also important for govloopers too. Hopefully this piece will encourage further discussion as govloop has always been a great host to it.

TheJournalizer Twitter Follow Count
Social media is often misrepresented by numbers. Followers, website traffic,Facebook friends, community members, blog subscribers, etc. all contribute to a self-imposed goal that really yields nothing in return. The numbers that are important are your power users. The people who continue to return to your site, contribute regularly and bring in their friends to add to the discussion. I’ll later break down a few of the popular social sites and how power users are identified.

Example: On a daily basis I look for new ways to improve online engagement with a demographic that is notably still deciding whether or not they want to use social media. Moreover, the demographic is still struggling to learn how to use social media, which in turn makes it difficult to use Web forums as a means of sharing ideas. While I won’t divulge how much communication is occurring on our community or how much traffic we are receiving, based on PEW Internet statistics this is the norm. The demographic? Everyone between Generation X and Boomers. Increasingly though are Millennials who are becoming entrepreneurs, but there is still a large fail rate.

As testament to my ability to generate discussion amongst my peers (read: I don’t simply suck), I converse frequently on the site Reddit. The demographic on there consists mostly of males between the ages of 18 through 35 [Source]. Today I opened a discussion thread with the only intention of finding out ways people have trolled or pranked their office mates. Knowing that many of my fellow redditors were mischievous, I also included one of my favorite pranks pulled during my time developing websites for the FAA. Ten hours later – there are now over 60 comments and a lively discussion involving people from many different demographics. That being said, writing to your audience is extremely important, but their demographic is still on the fence about using social media there may be a much smaller response.

With that being said, PEW Internet has also gathered what appears to be the most reliant source of information as to why the demographic may lead to a lack of quality discussion, even though your website traffic and membership numbers continues to increase.

Generation X Domination

Generation X and Boomers love to visit agency websites and get financial information. Moreover, there is a drastic increase in the amount of Gen X and Boomers looking to use social media, but again there is still a concern about how they use use it.

Point Change Online Usage

People are clearly online getting news and watching videos, but many people find that there is a lack of response. Your numbers may show a large amount of people viewing articles, but without direct responses it’s difficult to gauge how successful you are. That being said, how important is it to you personally that you have a large audience who doesn’t respond? Hint, you shouldn’t claim this as a success.

The Breakdown

Twitter – Power users are defined by people who interact regularly with the people they follow, and reach out to others that share a common interest. Don’t worry about your numbers, but do try to keep the amount of people you follow equal to those following you. People fear that if you are following more people than those following you that you are either a spammer, poor personality or just talking to yourself. To reduce this concern, put celebrities and people who don’t interact into lists.

  • Myth – The more followers you are the more influential and social you are.
  • Truth – You are only as good as your power users. Interact with them regularly.

Facebook – Facebook pages should really only be used for your friends, currently. As Facebook begins to open more to the public and compete with Twitter, it will change how you use it. I have my profile page on lock down so only friends, coworkers, and people I have a personal connection with can view a majority of my content. The amount of Facebook friends doesn’t represent anything more than a number.

  • Myth – More friends means more interactions
  • Truth – You can’t force conversations. Facebook is currently designed so you can interact with your personal friends and family. Random people will likely ignore you after they are added, and use you as a number under their profile.

Facebook Pages (business pages) – Similar to the Facebook profile, a Facebook Page can have 2,000 fans and only receive a few likes here and there. As an example, the Game news site Game Rant has 2,000 + fans, regular updates to their feed, but only a few likes can be found on the posts [Source]. Much like Twitter, the only way your fans will interact with you is to socialize the page. Ask questions, post pictures, and appeal to your audience. The interactions will naturally follow.

Myspace – If you are using this site for a business, don’t.

YouTube – Post videos that are relevant to your audience, block the comment section and embed them directly into your host site or community. There is still a lot of anonymity to be found on YouTube that results in trolls.

TL:DR – People often misunderstand that when it comes to social media, quality is more important than quantity. Just because you have 20,000 members in a community that doesn’t mean your demographic will respond. No responses = No Content/Site/Product/Application improvements. Be social, talk to others and most importantly be yourself. The bottom line is that if you are not being social with these social media tools, you are not doing it right.

Discussion Question: What do you find to be the most difficult part of being social with these social media tools?

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Elizabeth Ban

Great article with some very useful information. I’ve been trying to pull together the Pew research for a while and this summarizes the demographics and their uses nicely. Re: discussion question – I’d like to know how to encourage interaction while still being mindful of the fact that our social media represents a government site. Do we let people leave comments that are lobbying or that say something negative about our administration? I’d love input from others who use social media for work and any kind of best practices/guidelines they have.


This is great work. My debate with social media statistics is that some measure is better than nothing. I’ve met with people who say they have all that social media stuff and then I look and their agency has 50 fans or they have posted in 3 weeks. So some metrics like Alexa for website traffic and followers/fans for social media is at least a measure as a benchmark. Not perfect but better than nothing.

Tied to your discussion is the issue which people often forget that different types of content and communities are by nature more active. I’m in like 25 LinkedIn groups – there is a skill in running an active LinkedIn group…additionally topics like Internet marketing are bound to be more talkative as that audience is a talkative bunch (compared to financial planners or something else)

Tim Evans

Many vendors (Nielsen, Radian6, others) are selling services that purport to measure the Influence and Sentiment contained in social media postings. As you note, Power Users are usually the most influential (bit, if Barack Obama comments on your post, that’s likely to be very Influential, even if he never comes back). But what about the emotion expressed in their posts? How much meaning does that have (if it can, in fact, be measured at all)?

Elliot Volkman

Tim – I’m not fully sure I understand your question. Are you asking what type of fallout would result after someone like President Obama tweeted directly to a person or on their Facebook wall (that would be something)? As someone who regularly interacts with some rather popular names on Twitter and they spread my content, I can say there is only a temporary influence. Here is an example from earlier in the year. I posted an article on Reddit about wanting Bruce Campbell to host Saturday Night Live. Traffic stats showed over 11,000 views in 24 hours on that article. The next day? A 98 percent drop.

Steve- While I understand some stats are better than none, Alexa is not a good representation for websites that fall under a certain traffic level. Google Analytics is generally the easiest option to track your traffic. I personally use several different analytic tools and cross reference the numbers. I also track my social media efforts by hand, but we have a genius on the govWin side tracking that info. What you mentioned about Linkedin groups also goes for any online social outlet. The audience and demographic is the key to your content. If the information is not formated and directed towards them, it will either go over their head or be ignored. You make a great point there!

Elizabeth – I can’t comment from an agency prospective, but there has been some great discussion previously on govloop. [Forum 1] [Forum 2] Outside of this though, I have researched and created quite a few social media strategies myself. Generally it’s ok to engage people, and be social. If an agency is just posting relative articles on Twitter, it might as well be automated and sort of defeats the purpose of it being a social tool.


I agree with most of it except for the bit about Facebook. My friends on facebook are a mix of private citizens (personal friends) and govvies. I use it to post information about work that may or may not be of interest to my friends. I’ve found that my friends don’t seem to mind (they just ignore the posts that have no relevance to thier own lives) and my business connections often pick up the thread of my facebook discussions and repost in thier own blogs. So it does seem to be working as another channel to engage discussion, even if that discussion eventually moves to another site, and even if they don’t comment directly to my posts on Facebook.

Andrew Wilson


Some solid points made here and I agree that caution needs to be taken when choosing the metrics that you use to define success. If you haven’t seen it before Altimeter has a pretty framework around social marketing analytics that is worth looking at:


Also, though not quantitative, I am very much interested in finding and hearing stories about how these tools have had a measurable, positive impact on people’s lives. I think highlighting these would do much to tell the bigger story of how these tools can be used effectively and why resources should be devoted to developing our capacity to use them. Not that this should be done to the exclusion of developing and understanding the quantitative side of the equation but as an important corollary.

Stephen Peteritas

Yes power users are extremely important but numbers do matter because with the increase in overall numbers the more likely you are to increase power users.

Elliot Volkman

Stephen, how do you figure that works out? Power users don’t usually join a community by following the masses. They are formed by nurturing a mutual relationship with them.


@Elizabeth – I generally allow the negative comments if they are well grounded. Some of the criticism is justified and leads to interesting discussion. Lobbying = hmm..I guess if it isn’t spam, I’d leave it, or direct them to another site where they can further discuss. On the flip side of that issue – here is guidance for govvies in terms of the rules and regulations regarding social media and the Hatch Act.

Jeremy Greene

The PEW numbers are great.

I would suggest that there are some truths buried in the myths above. The problem with these numbers (followers, friends, etc.) is that they typically only highlight one side of the story. Social scoring, like Klout, have tried to combine multiple dimensions into a single number to give people a broader representation of a persons (or organizations) online importance. However, importance is somewhat subjective. If your definition of what’s important is different than Klout’s, the number becomes irrelevant.

This is an important point for government agencies. Define your success criteria when creating an online social presence. Once defined, you should be able to find reasonable and relevant ways to measure success.

If an agency just randomly picks one of these social scoring metrics or blindly reports on followers/friends, the value will be misrepresented.

Elizabeth Ban

@Megan – Thanks for the info on the Hatch Act. I’ve included it in my draft policy as well as links to all of the other AO and memos from the White House on down…

@Jeremy (and all others) – First, I’m very new to this, so I apologize for my naiveté. I’m sure these are much larger issues that this thread has been discussing from the start, but I’m hoping to
gain a deeper understanding through what others have done. How have you defined success for your agency when it comes to an online social presence? It seems we all are trying to engage the public or new audiences with our online presence, but does your social media strategy have a more specific definition of success? If not number of followers/likes or retweets, then how?

Elliot Volkman

Elizabeth – Success varies based on what your overall goal is. Agencies most likely won’t have to worry about outreach. If you search for relevant keywords on Twitter, you will probably find your audience that way. In my experience success isn’t achieved by follower numbers, but how far your message spreads. The follower number is a factor in that, but the people (power users) directly interacting with the brand/twitter account are most important. Twitter is often an outlet for public complaints. If you can reached out to those people and resolve their issue it may also be registered as a success.

Jeremy Greene

@Elizabeth – No apologies needs…this is really new to all of us. Social scoring really grew in 2010 and will evolve (in my opinion) quite a bit in 2011. To your question about how people are defining success, I’ll use Klout as an example because its received so much media attention lately.

They really measure ‘success’ on three main criteria that I’ll call Reach, Engagement, and Quality of Followers (they call these things True Reach, Amplification, and Network).

Reach – The number of followers in you networks (fans/friends in Facebook). If your goal is to simply grow your audience, then this is the number. More like a billboard…you have no idea if these people actually consume your message, but they do drive by.

Engagement – To Elliot’s point, when you start having a dialog with your followers, you know your message is resonating. So measuring engagement through shares, retweets and mentions is an important indicator to success, much more so than just plain reach. This is a two way street – your agency should cultivate and spread interesting conversations within your community of reach.

Quality of your Followers – Again, reach is great, but if some of your followers are movers and shakers in your space, the impact is drastically increased. It’s like Oprah mentioning your book to her book club. If you can begin conversations with these ‘expert’ connections, your message will spread. Agencies should know who these people are and start building relationships.

An agencies success will probably be a combination of these (and maybe some other) criteria because any ONE of them will skew the valuation (i.e. having high engagement with low reach is probably not good). There is no perfect answer, but being aware will help agencies define and validate their success which will be key to justifying a social media presence and strategy.

Elizabeth Ban

Jeremy and Elliot – Excellent input/insight for me. I’ve added some goals/evaluation to our plan. Still pretty vague based on the discussions going on here, but (as I say in the plan) once we see how it goes, we’ll better define and revise our strategy.

Thanks to all of you and Happy New Year!