Last Updated Sep 21, 2011 3:02 PM EDT
Social media researcher Dan Zarella has been exploring these questions not just by trial-and-error with one business account, but by number-crunching with data sets of thousands and even millions of tweets, blog, and Facebook posts. His slender new book, Zarella's Hierarchy of Contagiousness, puts that data to work to answer the question: How can you use social media so that your own ideas will spread to the most people?
Along the way, he uncovers some surprising findings, and demolishes more than a few cherished myths about how you should be using social media.
Five rules that any social media user should follow:
1) Know when to share. The same tweet or Facebook post shared at a different time of day or day of the week is much more likely to be re-shared and spread by your audience. Part of this is competitive pressure (if everyone else is tweeting, your own tweets get drowned out). Part of it is user behavior (on average, people use Facebook and Twitter at different times of day).
Zarella's data suggests that afternoon and evening are best for Twitter, and Friday is the best day to get retweeted. Facebook shares get more attention on the weekend, though. And blog posts attract the most links when published in the early morning. Be warned, though, that the optimal timing may vary based on your own audience, and if everyone starts tweeting on Friday now, Thursday could become preferable. So test it for yourself.
2) Focus on your audience, not yourself. The most popular word in the tweets that spread successfully in social media is "You." That's right, your readers like to hear how what you are saying relates to themselves. By contrast, Twitter accounts that frequently use self-referential language ("me" "I" "my" etc.) have fewer followers than average. Many experts put great stress on showing the "authentic you" in social media, but it's important to realize that doesn't mean you should keep the focus on yourself.
3) Keep language simple and direct. Strunk and White famously exhorted writers to strive for a clean, direct style that focuses on nouns and verbs before adjectives and adverbs. Their advice holds in social media as well. Posts rich in nouns and verbs are statistically more likely to be reshared. Simpler language (in articles or blog posts) is also much more likely to be reshared. On average, language at a 5th grade reading level or lower is much more effective. (You can use Microsoft Word's readability test to check your prose.)
4) Share more than you "engage." Social media can be great for conversation, whether chatting with a friend, or answering a customer service request. This has led many experts to advocate a social media strategy based around "engaging in the conversation." But this is actually not your best strategy if you are looking to attract followers and spread your own ideas. Zarella's data shows that customers are much more likely to follow you if you spend less of your social media posts conversing (e.g. @ replies in Twitter), and more of it sharing content that is valuable or interesting to your customers.
5) If you want something, just ask. The biggest question most social media business users fixate on is, "how do I get people to retweet my post, comment on my blog, or like my Facebook posting?" It turns out the most important thing you can do is to simply ask.
Zarella found that tweets including the words "please retweet" are consistently among the most shared. I have seen other data showing that best way to get people to comment on Facebook is to end your post by asking them to please "comment below" or "like this post." It's simple psychology, and common marketing knowledge, that an explicit call-to-action is always more effective than an implicit one. But for some reason, many people forget this when they operate in social media.
Check your own data, and re-check it
Zarella has some very nice charts detailing these and many other fascinating data points. (Some of these can be found on his blog, but to get the full picture, you'll want to read his book.)
But his most important advice comes in the last chapter, when he urges businesses to get out there and test their own social media with a scientific eye, to figure out what works for them. Your customers may operate on a different time clock than the average of millions of social media users around the world. Your customers might be more likely to click on a different type of content or headline than my readers do. But any business that uses social media to communicate should make use of the many free tools for tracking when and where their ideas spread, so that they can keep learning, and be sure their voice is being heard.
Don't just do it. Measure it.
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image courtesy of flickr user, Search Engine People Blog
David Rogers examines the five core behaviors of customers in the digital world, and how businesses can use them to create lasting value, in his new book, "The Network Is Your Customer: Five Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age." He teaches Digital Marketing Strategy at Columbia Business School, and speaks at conferences worldwide. Rogers has advised and developed marketing and digital strategies for numerous companies such as SAP, Eli Lilly, and Visa. Find him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/david_rogers and on Google+ at http://bit.ly/DavidRogersGplus.