Vanity metrics vs REAL results in social media

Followers: Vanity metrics vs real results in social media

There’s a movement gathering pace in social media circles at the moment which aims to oust what was once considered a best practice of gathering a heap of followers.

The process goes like this:

  1. Follow a heap of users
  2. Wait for users to follow back
  3. Unfollow users, leaving your follower/following ratio looking great

And it works — almost everyone wants more followers, so if you follow, say, 1,000 people per day and even a small percentage of them follow you back, you’ll soon be on track to your first million followers. And a million followers means you’re important, right? Now you’re a social media celebrity, you can demand first class seats, you can use your following as leverage in a Twitter dispute with your utilities provider.

Sounds pretty good right?

While it most definitely does work, and you can build a huge following with little effort, it’s important that you take a moment to understand what your end goal is with such a process. If all you want to do is gain followers — if you’re a model, for example, and companies won’t book you for a job unless you have 10,000 followers on Instagram (this is a real thing, by the way) — then by all means, go get more followers.

But if you actually want to use social platforms in any meaningful, applicable way, then this practice is fast falling out of step.

Here’s why.


The platform that’s most notorious for this type of follow/unfollow behaviour is Twitter (though Instagram’s not far behind). It’s pretty common on Twitter to find a social media influencer with a follower/following ratio like this.

Not many tweets, massive amount of followers — but, importantly, an equally massive amount of people they’re following. The problem with this is that it’s not possible to follow this many people — there’s no way this person is getting any value out of their tweet stream.

This became even more relevant recently when Twitter announced their new algorithm-defined timeline — under this new system, Twitter works to show you content most relevant to you, as well as people you might like to follow, based on what you tweet, who you communicate with and (a big one) who you follow already. And if you’re just using Twitter to game the system into a massive following, those recommendations are going to be way off — in order to make best use of Twitter, your best bet is to only follow people relevant to you, not every single person who you come across.

But then again, it’s hard to deny the value of a massive following. Even the person in the above example, if you were to come across their profile, you’d think “this person is important”. That’s despite the fact that it’s obvious that they’ve followed a heap of people in order to boost their own numbers. Your follower count does matter, undeniably, but as time goes on, users are becoming more savvy to these mass follow tactics.

The reality is that just as these people are not able to listen to those million people they’re following, those million people are also not likely to be listening to them. It’s a grand circle of inflated numbers, where almost everyone is talking and few are actually listening.

Sure, you could tell yourself that a larger number of followers increases the chances, by weight of numbers, that your message will be heard, the broadcast strategy. But really, your analytics till tell the real story. And that’s, ultimately, where we’re headed.

Numbers Don’t Lie                                                                                                   

Coming back to the original point — while building a following has its advantages, and value, it’s important that you recognize what that value is to you before you go inflating your audience stats. Basically, getting a heap of followers is not hard — anyone with enough time and the right tools can do it. But generating actual engagement is a challenge. No doubt that’s why so many people take the easy way out.

Another example of this practice is on Instagram — what brands will sometimes do on Instagram is they’ll start posting content not related to their brand directly, or their products. Instead, they’ll start posting inspirational quotes and images, which, unsurprisingly, leads to a massive jump in engagement. People like inspirational quotes and pictures, and they’ll indicate that with their increased post engagement, and the social media manager will proclaim this a success — “look at our engagement stats. Look at the numbers.

But what are those users actually doing?

Posting memes and quotes and GIFs can be great interest generators, but the important metrics you need to focus on will sometimes get lost amidst the celebration confetti being thrown about in celebration of a hollow victory.

Are those users who are clicking the ‘heart’ on your posts then also clicking through to your site? Are you seeing an increase in website visitors or conversions as a result of your efforts? If you are, then excellent, by all means, continue posting off-brand content. But if you’re not, what’s the point?

Of course, every social media marketing campaign will have a different objective — if you’re looking to boost awareness, then maybe those engagement stats are highly relevant and are resulting in wider reach for your brand message. But that’s the data trail you need to be tracking.

Social media metrics, within themselves, are only one part of the puzzle — it’s the subsequent actions that you’re seeing as a result of those initial engagements that hold any real value.

Lions and LinkedIn

The equivalent of this practice on LinkedIn is a ‘LION’, or a ‘LinkedIn Open Networker’. If you’ve been on LinkedIn for any length of time, you’ll have come across a LION — they normally have something like “50k connections on LinkedIn” listed in their description.

It’s the same practice, the same theory — you follow as many people as you possibly can, get some of them to connect back, then just unfollow them in your feed. It gives the illusion of influence without the actual data to back it up.

And look, plenty of people swear by these tactics — there are even apps and tools that make it easier for you to do. But as time goes on, and as social media becomes a bigger part of business process, we’re moving beyond these base metrics and towards a situation where we can actually understand and apply real engagement data to quantify influence or relevance in social circles.

Really (and I’ve noted this before) those vanity metrics are irrelevant without additional qualifiers. Yes, it’s great to appear popular, but with the breadth of data options available these days, we’re becoming more aware of what such measurements do and don’t mean.

And even on a network specific level, they’re becoming less relevant.

  • Twitter has an algorithm that won’t work if you’re not using the platform as intended
  • Instagram, too, has an algorithm that won’t be as effective unless you show it what you’re actually interested in
  • Facebook’s algorithm has reduced Page reach to the point where Pages are lucky to reach even 5% of their actual audience, so inflating your Page Likes is largely useless (outside of social proof)
  • LinkedIn limits users to 30,000 first degree connections, and will restrict your account if you exceed that number

As an interesting aside to this, Snapchat, the newest of the big social networks, actually doesn’t display a follower count at all, eliminating this as a comparative metric (LinkedIn went part of the way on this by only showing up to 500 connections, though clearly there are still some who seek to game that system).

In essence, having a large social following can be important, it can be valuable, and even helpful in various respects. But as we learn more about social interactions and data, we’re also becoming more attuned to the ins and outs of actual network value and how we measure influence. There are already tools like Klout for this, which show you a number that ranks your engagement level, as opposed to followers, but we’re moving towards a time where all social networks work to put more emphasis on actual engagement, as opposed to vanity stats.

Building your audience is an essential part of social media marketing, but building the right audience, that will actual take the next steps you need them to in order to generate real results, is significantly more valuable in the long run.

There’s no perfect way to do this, but understanding your end goal will ensure you don’t get swept up in a flood of base metrics alone.


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