In 1910, Harold Peck Gould graduated from the University of Michigan just as the efficiency movement was becoming the leading new philosophy of the business world.  By 1913, Gould became the publisher and the editor-in-chief of the magazine “Efficiency”, later named “100%”. By 1916, even Gould’s alma mater along with most other major business and engineering schools included scientific management in course offerings.

While “Efficiency” may have been its most visible publication, The H.P. Gould Company was also providing specialty publications for businesses, not unlike the research reports that companies like N M Incite publish today.  That company, N M Incite, was the result of a coming together of McKinsey and Company, and The Nielsen Company.  And it was at H.P. Gould that Arthur C. Nielsen, the founder of The Nielsen Company got his start in field research.

After three years at H.P. Gould, Nielsen borrowed $45,000 from some college buddies and embarked on his own business venture. Nielsen’s background was engineering – and in the beginning, most of the projects at the fledgling company were focused on industrial research.  Over time, though, the company offered more consumer related research.

In 1936 Nielsen learned of a device, the Audimeter, which could record when a radio was turned on and to what station it was tuned. Nielsen acquired the rights to the device, and by 1942, had started the Nielsen Radio Index; by 1950 the Nielsen Television Index.

Since that time, marketers have turned to the Nielsen Ratings to help them in their media planning. And incidentally, by 2009, The Nielsen Company employed some 36,000 people worldwide, with total revenues of nearly $4.8 billion.

For decades, marketers have been condition to be concerned with the size of their audience. It makes sense: the more people reached, the more become aware of the brand, and the more people will purchase the brand’s products.

And Along Comes Social Media Marketing

Along comes social media marketing, and marketers are, of course, still concerned with the reach of their messages. How many followers do we have on Twitter? How many “friends”, or “likers” on Facebook? If we post a message in social media, how many pairs of eyes will eventually receive that message?

This was just a smattering of the great news to be found on the web. There has also been some bad news, such as the recent announcement that only 10% of a page’s Facebook fans will ever return to that page.  Or that more than half of all tweets are generated by around 20,000 individuals. A LOT of people have signed up, but have gotten “Facebook Fatigue”, or simply aren’t participating.

Playing around with Tweetreach (thankyou Josepf Haslam), I put my own Twitter handle into the search and discovered that with my past 50 tweets, I had reached 39,282 people, and that there were 75,897 impressions. While that is flattering in a way, I really question the notion that my Tweets were actually noticed that many times.  Very few of us read each and every tweet in our streams – instead, we dip in every now and then, or pay attention to certain search terms.

I’m sure that the numbers are based on what might seem like some reasonable assumptions – that I have a certain amount of followers, and that certain tweets were retweeted a certain amount of times to other bunches of followers.  But even more than billboards or magazine impressions, the assumptions around them being noticed just don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Attention economy

“… a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” – Herbert Simon

Of course, old media suffered from similar issues.  Sorry, Mr. Nielsen, but we really didn’t know if someone got up during the commercial and went off and made a batch of JiffyPop.  At the end of the day, we knew if there was an increase in sales. If we could afford the research, we could determine if there was an increase in awareness.

When it comes to social media, what if we were to change the game a bit?  What if instead of trying to build up armies of followers, who aren’t really paying attention to our messages, we focused on engaging micro-groups.  I once had a client who told me that if they reached the right 10 people in the United States, our work online would be a success (and it was!).  This is something we see in B2B marketing quite often. But how about in B2C? What if we focused on really GREAT interactions with a very small group, and allowed the messages to flow naturally out of that group?

Recently, on one of the blogs I regularly follow, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu  posted a blog post about language in social media that received over 25 comments in about a week.  Not only were there comments, though, but considered and often deep parts of a discussion that Kevin then replied to (each and every one) – bringing the conversation even deeper.  What started as post of 1,150 words ended up being over 10 times that!

Many of Kevin’s older blog posts only received a few comments. What seems to have happened is that he has stepped up his interactions with others on Twitter.  He’s a master of engaging with people across several platforms, so that when he writes a blog post, he’s able to bring those conversations there, as well.

There is a world of difference to being a member of a grouping, and the formation of a group, and then again, a whole other world of the “community”. When a person uses social media to have conversations with other individuals, then brings those individuals together in discussion, they are creating a group.

American Psychologist Bruce Tuckman created a theory of group formation base on four stages of group development:

Are these ideas relevant in the creation of groups within social media for the purpose of marketing?

Recently, there has been some press about the validation of Dunbar’s number in Twitter.  Research suggests that there are limits to how large our cohesive social network can grow, even in Twitter.  You might have 5,000 followers, but the data shows that real conversations happen within a smaller group of 100 to 200 people.  Of course, brands can have many individuals working on a social media account – so are brands similarly constrained?

As marketers, why should we even really care about the formation of groups or cohesive social networks? Well, if our job is to broadcast information outward with the hopes of it “being amplified”, and having “more reach”, maybe not – except that within groups, those functions might happen more easily.

But if we are not just thinking about broadcasting, the groups and networks start to make a lot more sense. We can become part of helping to create change – which in the end, is the reason to even be in a group.

Here’s the beautiful part: if as marketers, we put our big question in terms of how we can effect change – and I’m not just talking about the change to our sales figures, but to some bigger issue that relates to the passion points behind our brand – we could be a part in group and community formation, and be part of something greater.