Consumers have come to believe that when a brand ranks high in organic search the brand must be a quality brand. While there are a lot of factors that affect rankings, our own experience has proved Google's algorithm to be valid. When I search for mutual funds, the top three paid results are Vanguard, T. Rowe Price and Fidelity. The top organic results are links from Wikipedia, Morningstar, CNN and Vanguard. The results just make sense, so our ongoing experience supports the quality hypothesis.
The same sorts of observations are being made in social media. People who have lots of followers on Twitter are becoming more important and brands with lots of followers on Facebook are popular. It's starting to feel like high school all over again.
Sociologists have always loved examining how the social dynamics that exist in grades 1-12 affect kids into adulthood - and for good reason. The grade-school years are such an important developmental time and often a predictor of how we'll behave as adults. Bullies often turn out to be criminals, quarterbacks turn out to be successful executives, math-club kids turn out to invent software companies, and so on. We especially love when the archetype turns out different, which is one of the reasons why "Glee" is so popular. Imagine using social media stats as a proxy for grade-school success. Kids with lots of friends (fans) are considered popular. Victoria's Secret, with 12 million fans, would be the most popular girl in the school and probably a cheerleader. Starbucks, with 20 million fans, would be the neighborhood that the rich kids lived in. Gucci, with 4 million fans would be the "It" bag. Barack Obama would be class president (18 million fans) while Justin Bieber, with 22 million fans, is the prom king and Lady Gaga (29 million fans) is the prom queen.
Bieber is particularly important because he also has 8 million Twitter followers. People really care what he has to say. Lady Gaga has almost 9 million followers. But Obama has less than 200,000 followers (the White House has less than 2 million). What happened? Are some high school archetypes turning out differently? Are we witnessing popularity not translating to importance?
Just as search rankings became a proxy for quality, fans will become a proxy for popularity and followers will become a proxy for importance. Quality, popularity and importance will become a trifecta that stands for brand health.
Brands quickly learned we could affect search rankings by effectively managing SEO - so we did. We're starting to learn the importance of popularity. Fans are becoming a sign of brand health because they're endorsements. As a result, more and more social media companies are promising to drive fans and more clients are measuring the effectiveness of a marketing campaign based on how many fans the campaign drew.
Twitter is being used differently than Facebook and is becoming a proxy for the kind of importance one achieves in adulthood. People friend a brand because they like it. People follow a brand because they want to hear what the brand has to say. While those are very similar ideas, they are also very different. In high school it was important to hang with the right crowd because social position was so important. We didn't necessarily like everyone we hung out with. But as we grew older we became more selective about whom we called friends, if for no other reason than life became more complicated to manage and we didn't have as much time. We also started listening more to the people that could help us and teach us professionally. But popularity and importance are both important metrics and need to be managed closely. Healthy brands need to have friends and followers. They also need to learn how to leverage the influence that comes with being popular and important.
Barry Lowenthal is president of The Media Kitchen.