When It Comes to Social Media Adoption, Here Are the Friends You Can Trust

I've spent the last couple of days in what, for me, is the most unlikely of places: Tulsa, Okla., where I gave a presentation to several hundred communications executives about my thoughts on where popular social platforms hit and miss the mark. Just thinking about this issue was an interesting exercise, because it made me wonder why I have the thoughts I do about social platforms. What is my underlying foundation of belief?

While I've shared many of my thoughts in these columns, the truth is they are thoughts made on deadline, and therefore often come straight from the gut. The gut is not a bad thing to trust, but on the other hand, it doesn't lend itself to introspection. But thinking about what I would say during my presentation certainly did. And here's what I discovered:

In assessing social media platforms, I rely as much on whether I see my friends, family and neighbors using them as I do on what the pundits say. It's not scientific, I know, because it means that my results are inevitably skewed toward people somewhat like myself: harried mothers of a certain age and their spouses, people from the Northeast, and the assorted archetypes around them, from affluent children to grandmothers who have iPads. But what intrigues me is that you can probably trust this so-called data more than you think. And we should probably pay more attention to it, too.



For the purposes of my presentation, I focused on the traction of four platforms: Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook and, as a grand finale, Google+.  I looked at official data from the platforms themselves, where it existed, and also at data from Pew, which does a good job of breaking down U.S. adult social media usage by age group and demo. And then, with the exception of the nascent Google+, I looked at my own lists of friends and followers, and what part of my life they came from.

What those exercises told me is that while Facebook is everywhere, when it comes to the mid-adult demo, Twitter and Foursquare haven't really caught on to the extent you might think. According to Pew, 13% of U.S. online adults use Twitter. While a big increase from the 8% who used it back in November, tweeting is a surprisingly niche behavior. When it comes to how much of my Twitter following - of about 1750 -- comes from my personal life, it's only 9 people:

·      One family member, my husband. (Because his significant other told him it might be good for promoting his book.)

·      Six people from the town I live -- two who are in the social media biz, one real estate agent, one mother, who has never tweeted; one app developer; and the wife of one of the two people in social media biz.

·      One person I went to high school with, who works at TBWA/Chiat/Day.

·      One person I went to college with, who just likes social media.


In other words, almost everyone who follows me from my personal life has something to sell.

Foursquare's results also don't match the hype. Sure, the platform has grown from only 100,000 users in the fall of 2009 to 10 million as of June. That's great. But if you think this is truly a mass phenomenon, think again. According to Pew, as of last November, only 1% of U.S. online adults used the service daily; the total percentage of users among U.S. online adults was 4%.

The percentage of people who use social networks who also use Foursquare is 6%. Compare that to the number of U.S. social network users who are on Facebook, which is an astonishing 92%!

Only four people from my personal life are friends of mine on Foursquare, and all are from the town where I live; two are the husband and wife I referenced before. The other two work for Internet start-ups.

This doesn't mean that Foursquare and Twitter are doomed. When one considers their growth rates, such a thought would be ludicrous. But it does suggest the limitations of both. I have trouble seeing, frankly, how Twitter moves beyond being for people who need a public platform and their acolytes, even though that's a lot of people.

As for Foursquare, the big hurdle is in the business model. There have to be strong incentives beyond a potential mayorship or badge to make many of us feel it's worth it to check in. Its recent business deals with Groupon and other daily deal sites, and with American Express, are yet more indication that it's going in that direction, fortunately.

Usually, when we see statistics on social media, they are true statistics, from big, reputable companies that know a good research study when they see it. Still, I think it's a useful exercise for all of us to track adoption of social networks among the people in our lives, who don't work on the Internet or social media; namely, the people who have no skin in this game. You may be surprised with what you find.

(As an addendum, here's another fun factoid from the annals of completely anecdotal research: when I asked the crowd in Tulsa if anyone had poked someone recently on Facebook, not a single hand went up. Meanwhile, about half were on Google+.)

5 comments about "When It Comes to Social Media Adoption, Here Are the Friends You Can Trust".
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  1. Anita Baker from Baker Consulting, August 5, 2011 at 6:36 p.m.

    I can't argue with your statistics -- they come from reputable sources. But I do think that the influence and use of some of these social networks goes beyond what you cite. For example, a commuter train in the Bay Area was running late and there were no announcements. A fellow commuter posted the reason for the problem and the anticipated time of arrival -- terrific use of Twitter and nothing that has to do with acolytes or people requiring a public platform. I'm excited about the new incentives to use Four Square. Now besides uncovering cool places I can benefit financially!

  2. Joellyn Sargent from BrandSprout LLC, August 6, 2011 at 8:08 a.m.

    Hi Catharine, your experience is similar to my own. Most people in my (real) life don't do a whole lot on social media. Facebook seems to be the preferred platform for the "average" American...although my husband won't touch it.

    When I ask people outside my social media circle what they think about Foursquare, Google+, etc. the response is usually something like, "who has time for that?"

    The friends and connections I have on social networks are those who use it for business, love tech, or are under 30.

    Over time, if the utility of these apps grows (like the Twitter example above) I think you'll see more adoption. There just needs to be a compelling reason. "All my friends are there," seems to work.

  3. Michael Odza from Odza Consults/Social Media Lift, August 6, 2011 at 6:26 p.m.

    Clearly, as Anita shows, there are regional and professional pockets of high concentrations of users for specific social media-- as well good use cases.

    But it's definitely fits my experience that "civilians" are a lot less likely to use any social media, with the glaring exception of Facebook -- which they use for personal relationships with people they already know: friends and family. I would be willing to bet the early adopters of Google Plus are precisely the most wired people around, with just a few civilians who have been waiting for a chance to be early adopters of SOMEthing...

    And I too hear that the barrier to use of Twitter or any other social tool is the time required. It requires changing time management habits, and there certainly needs to be a compelling reason -- either behavioral psychology-based (my friends are doing it, or scoring points), or work-based (I can make more money).

  4. Kate Baumgart Hogenson from Loyalty Landscape, August 8, 2011 at 12:05 p.m.

    Let me call attention to the observations that a) these platforms appeal to early adopters, b) early adopters "have something to sell," & c) as utility grows, then adoption grows. Yes, early adopters are content creators & content creators are a small percentage of the total population. As a consultant on the uses of these platforms for loyalty (yes, that's what I'm selling), my current counsel is to set my client's expectations that these platforms will help them w/ leading edge influencers but that they need to find benefits or apps that provide a real service or meaningful discount if they are to engage a broader audience at this point. Of course, I'm monitoring social media & mobile developments & look forward to updating that recommendation...

  5. Joe Buhler from buhlerworks, August 9, 2011 at 5:18 p.m.

    My own observations and experiences are quite comparable to Catherine's and in my opinion a welcome periodic reality check for those of us who can in many cases not be considered "mainstream" when it comes to social web use. With the exception of Facebook these services are far from having gained true mass adoption. They might well achieve that status over time. One condition is they have to make their use very compelling as they all compete for our most limited resource - time.

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