Duncan Stewart

Measuring social media success takes more than a fast start

Special to The Globe and Mail

A screen shot of the Google+ social network is shown in this publicity photo released to Reuters June 28, 2011. (HO/REUTERS)

There seems to be a new measure of success in the social network game: it’s called “who can get to 10 million users first?” You obviously have to go through 10 million in order to get to 100 million, or more, and faster is probably better, but I believe that this new metric is not a guarantee of certain triumph.

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Before we go into why, let me clear about two things. I am, in fact, inspired to write this column by the press and blog coverage around Google’s new social network, Google+. Only 16 days after launch, G+ had 10 million users, compared to 780 and 852 days for Twitter and Facebook to reach the same number.

Next, this column is not about whether G+ will or will not be a huge social network success. There are a range of opinions on that subject: some say users are becoming less interested; others claim there’s no room for another social network; and the most recent data says G+ is through 25 million users with a bullet. I think it is way too soon to tell, but I do want to pick apart the 10 million user yardstick.

My first problem is that 10 million is way too small a number to measure social media success. Joining a new social network costs nothing other than a few hours of a user’s time. That’s not to say that the owners of a social network can’t make money off information from the social graph or selling ads, of course. They can. But it’s not the same, say, as Apple selling 10 million iPads in less than a year. That was a big deal. At retail prices, that user base represents $4 to 6-billion in real money that had to come out of someone’s wallet.

Next, there exists a fairly large core of ultra-early adopters who are very interested in the latest and greatest technology, especially if it’s free and social. Nobody has precisely measured this group, but let’s try a thought experiment. With a world population of 7 billion, by definition the top decile (10 per cent) of earliest tech adopters is 700 million. Out of that group, the top percentile (of the top decile, or one in a thousand) is 7 million people who will try any new service.

I’ve met these people. Heck, I am these people.

And while we have many charming characteristics as individuals, collectively our hard drives are filled with thousands of free apps, social networks, widgets and technological bric-a-brac that we signed up for, and no longer use regularly.

Just as one example, remember the Wolfram|Alpha launch in May of 2009? In the first five days millions of users had tested the new search engine, heralded as a possible successor to Google. I know I did. I also know I haven’t been back since.

If getting to 10 million free users fastest isn’t a reliable measure of future success, what should we be looking for?

I think the 100 metre sprint might be a good analogy. There are three major phases to the race: the start out of the blocks, the acceleration to reach top speed, and then maintaining that speed to the finish line.

Getting to 10 million users first is like a great start, but it is not a necessary or sufficient condition for eventual success. What will matter over the coming months for Google+, or any competing social network, will be two additional factors.

Given that the current top dogs in the social space have between 100 and 700 million users, I think that getting over 100 million users is a minimum requirement for success. Even that isn’t a guarantee: MySpace was well over that number and is no longer seen as a top-tier player.

Equally important to a fast start is engagement. Your user base may contain millions who tried it once and never again, but roughly half of them should be using your service at least once a week, preferably daily. And they should spend many minutes a day on the service.

The top echelon of the social network space has all achieved that level of use. Joining them up there almost certainly means meeting or beating on total users and engaged users.

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