The Social Dynamics of Facebook Fan Pages
Michael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.
Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.
By 2010, social media has become an integral part of most marketing strategies. But what does it really mean for a brand to have a social media strategy? Since social networks are so pervasive, one of the easiest ways for brands to tap the power of social media is by establishing a presence on social networks, such as Facebook (FB). Most brands probably already have fan pages setup on FB. Like any social technology, FB is definitely going to help us to communicate and connect better in some ways, but it is at the same time restrictive in others. As I mentioned last time, to make this new technology work for us, we must understand the relative strengths and weaknesses.
So what is a FB fan page good for? And what is it bad for? To answer this question, we must understand the social dynamics (which I’ve covered quite extensively in the past few months) that governs how people behave on FB fan pages. If you want a recap on some of the social principles we’ve discussed, or just missed them first time round, I recommend reviewing the following posts before proceeding:
If you’ve worked with a FB fan page, you probably noticed that it is rather hard to keep the members of your fan page engaged, despite FB being a fairly engaging platform. Consequently it is difficult to build relationships with those fans, and even more difficult to drive action among them. Today, we will apply the principles and social dynamics that what we’ve learned in the past few weeks, to explain some of these commonly observed challenges when working with FB fan pages.
The Cyber Anthropology of FB and Its Fan Pages
If you recall from my mini-series on Cyber Anthropology, I outlined some of the distinctive characteristics of communities vs. social networks. Even though fan pages reside in Facebook, which is a social networking platform, they really behave like a community.
1. On a FB fan page, you probably don’t know all the fans on that page. In fact, if you’ve just joined a fan page, you probably don’t know most of the people on that fan page. So it is clear that a fan page is not held together by pre-existing interpersonal relationships as is the case with social networks, because there are not many pre-existing interpersonal relationships on the fan page. Instead, what holds a fan page together is the common interest in a particular brand. Whether these fans are there to get coupons/discounts, or they are a true supporter of the company/product, their common interest about the brand is the cohesive force that brings them back to the fan page. This is the first and most prominent characteristic that distinguishes a community from a social network.
2. People may join and be part of many fan pages. This implies that a fan page has some sort of abstract boundary like a community. And people can choose to join as many fan pages as they like or have time for.
3. Finally, fan pages may overlap. For any big brand, there are probably numerous fan pages about the brand. Moreover, fans on one page may also be fans of another page. This is exactly how communities overlap in the real and virtual world: the common members of two communities are precisely where the two communities meet and overlap.
In contrast to a fan page, FB itself is a social network, which is held together by pre-existing interpersonal relationships. Many researches have documented that nearly all the relationships on FB were first established elsewhere offline. This is consistent with the fact that social network has been historically, and anthropologically, the social structure for maintaining relationships, rather than building relationships. And FB is so good at maintaining pre-existing relationships that most people use it to maintain their strongest ties: families, close friends, relatives, old classmates, etc. Clearly people have many strong ties on FB.
The Competition for Attention
FB is one of the most pervasive, engaging and sticky social platforms out there. So it makes perfect sense for brands to want to create a fan page in the FB platform. The hope is that brands would then enjoy the breadth of reach, the engagement, and the stickiness of the FB platform. However, practitioners who actually work with fan pages often find the contrary. The question is why? There is a clear explanation from the social principles that we’ve learned about the attention economy.
In this information-overloaded world, attention has become a very scarce resource. Consequently, we must constantly choose where we want to focus our limited attention in an active engagement. As we discussed earlier (see The Relativity and Economics of Relationship), during any active engagement there is an attention economy that governs who we are likely to engage and interact with. It has to do with the relative tie strength in our immediate engagement circle. Since stronger ties tend to draw more attention, they will usually win and get the attention, engagement, and interaction from a user.
If we apply this principle to FB, we can clearly see that most people on FB have lots of strong ties on FB (due to FB’s superb efficacy on maintaining relationships). Since these strong ties tend to draw more attention, they will compete with the weaker ties for a user’s attention. But who are these weaker ties?
Since any fan page is immediately accessible when you are on the FB platform, the weaker ties include the brands (i.e. the fan page and other members within the page). As we’ve already discussed, a fan page is a community; there are little pre-existing relationships on branded fan pages. Furthermore, a person’s relationship with a brand tends to be much weaker than their interpersonal relationships. Due to the relatively weak tie strength between customers and brands, some researchers even argue that customers generally do not actually have a relationship with a brand (see Figuring Out the Relationship Puzzle).
So who do you think is going to win this tug of war? The answer should be clear. Although the fan page is certainly going to lose the tug of war when it comes to competing for attention with the strong ties, it doesn’t mean that no one will visit the fan page. If you recall from my post on The Relativity and Economics of Relationship, weaker ties can sometimes win small amounts of attention though contextual and extrinsic factors, such as urgency, easiness, arousal, interest, and gaming. So fans will drop by a fan page to pick up a coupon if they find it valuable, they will ask a question if the need something, and they will look at an ad if it looks relevant or interesting. But with so many strong ties around competing for attention, it’s much harder for brands to engage their fans sufficiently to build any meaningful relationship with them.
In other words, the mere presence of strong ties on the FB platform inhibits the development of other weak ties, such as those with brands. This may sound counterintuitive, but it is crucially important: the reason that FB fan pages are not engaging enough to build relationships is ironically the fact that the FB platform is too engaging due to the presence of many pre-existing strong ties. As a result, it is often difficult to drive actions through a fan page.
The Conflict between Social Spheres (Communities)
In the offline world, weak ties (e.g. brands) can sometimes get your full attentions for an extended period of time when you are not actively engaged with your strong ties. Can brands utilize this mechanism to win your engagement on the fan page? Probably not! If you didn’t want to engage with your strong ties online, you probably wouldn’t be on FB. If you want to engage with anyone on FB, the rest of your strong ties will be there too.
If a fan page is not an efficient medium for brands to develop a meaningful relationship with their customers, what else can brands do? Historically and anthropologically the best place to develop relationships is in a community. Weak ties develop most rapidly in an environment devoid of distractions from the attention-demanding strong ties.
One of the reasons leading to the initial success of FB is the fact that they know how to leverage a university campus (which is a natural community) for relationship building. Most of the students have just left home, where they had most of their strong ties. Since they have just started college, there aren’t very many pre-existing strong ties in their engagement circle (i.e. the university campus). The university community (a social structure for building relationship devoid of strong ties) complemented with the FB social network (a social structure for maintaining relationships) is what led to FB’s initial success.
But wait the minute... Didn’t we just establish that a fan page is really a community? We did say that, so what is it about a FB fan page that makes it inefficient for building relationships? Clearly it has to do with the strong ties that are on FB. This is actually an interesting problem that has been documented in the research and academic community; it’s known as the problem of conflicting social spheres. In most cases, a person’s social sphere often corresponds to the different communities they belong to. Google researcher, Paul Adams, also gave an excellent presentation on this subject with his 224-page deck.
Simply put, there are natural boundaries between different social spheres (communities) in the offline world. These boundaries are created due to spatial and/or temporal separation of contact. However, FB removes these boundaries and treats the different types of relationships (e.g. my relatives in Taiwan, families in CA, high school friends, church friends, neuroscience colleagues, etc) as equal. The important side effect is that information within any one social sphere (community) will become visible to all. Research has shown that this often creates tensions that interfere with the development of new ties, and therefore constrain the growth of personal social networks.
There is no doubt that FB has enhanced the way we communicate and connect with our friends and relatives. It does such an excellent job on sharing information and maintaining relationships that it created a side effect due to its efficacy. This, unfortunately, has an adverse effect on the development of weaker ties on FB (such as relationships with brands through their fan page).
- FB is a social network (that contains many strong ties of a user)
- A fan page on FB is really a community (that generally has much weaker or no ties to a user).
- The strong ties (families and friends) on FB will compete with weaker ties (brands) for attention. The mere presence of strong ties on FB will inhibit the development of weaker ties with brands.
- FB removes the spatial/temporal boundaries between the different social spheres in our offline world by dumping all the different relationships of ours into one bucket: friends. This conflict of the social spheres further aggravate the competition for attention, and researches have shown that it often interfere with development of new ties.
Alright, this is a rather long and deep post that utilizes many social principles that we have discussed earlier. I hope it provides an understanding for the challenges when working with a FB fan page. Keep in mind that this is not a failure on FB’s part. The reason that FB has this problem is because it is doing an excellent job at what it’s supposed to do as a social network (i.e. maintaining relationships).
Next time we will look deeper at some of the greatest strengths of FB, so you’ll know both the strengths and weaknesses of this popular social platform. So stay tuned! As always, I welcome any comment, suggestion, critiques, and discussion. See you next time.
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