Lee Odden

Growing Social Networks for Business: 3 Essential Lessons

grow business social networksA lot of businesses, large and small, consumer and B2B focused, are grappling with how the social web will be a tool for their business. Research is actually showing asocial media CEOs are bad for business. I’ve even heard from executives at digital marketing agencies, “I really need to learn this stuff myself” about social media applications and networks. So they start.

The first phase seems to focus on getting to know social applications as a user and the “rules” both explicit and implicit within social communities.  When to use @ and when to use RT for example. Or that you don’t mass follow/friend people you don’t know or make explicit sales pitches to people who you’ve not developed a connection with.

Once a feeling of social savviness sets in, social media management tools like Hootsuite start to get used for monitoring, publishing and interacting with social communities.  Those tools make the mechanics of social network development, engagement and content promotion more efficient. Through efficiency comes an effort towards scale and that’s where it’s essential to learn a few key lessons about growing social networks.

Businesses need to grow and so there’s a tendency to equate operational efficiency with social content promotion as equivalent to increasing effectiveness. i.e. share more content with your social networks and you’ll reach more people. In the PR world that’s called “spray and pray”.

Since a lot of companies are still wondering about guidelines and parameters for how they should behave on the social web in a way that grows both the community and the business without alienating customers or future customers, here are a few considerations:

Social network size is not the same thing as social network quality – There’s a rush to buy fans, friends and followers but hitting a certain target doesn’t automatically equal a concomitant increase in network value. Sure, growing your networks is important and you should make an effort to do so every day. But the addition of a follower is a stepping stone, not an objective.  It matters how you grow your network more than the size of network you end up with.

Evaluate your network: Will they respond to your offers? Will they answer questions, participate and refer your brand to others? I’d take 10 active fans who advocate vs. 50 that are simply waiting for a coupon, giveaway or freebie.

Meaningful vs. mechanical – The drive to scale social media networking and content promotion efforts is strong, because companies want to see a return on their investment. The gratification from social media participation can involve a delay and longer timeframe depending on your industry, company and objectives. There’s a tendency to identify surface level patterns of effective social media usage and turn them into processes. Once in process form, duplication leads to a scaled social participation model.

The problem with that is not having an understanding of the underlying reasons for social interactions, sharing and engagement. Simply executing a process creates a mechanical social media effort, not meaningful. Mechanical brand Twitter accounts simply post information culled from a social editorial calendar with no one to one engagement. It can look robotic.

Meaningful company social media participation shows personality and personalization. Questions are asked, mentions are responded to and interaction occurs between people, not software like these two AI powered chatbots:

Attract interest by showing interest. People will only be as interested in your brand’s social media efforts as the interest your brand shows in the community – individually and collectively. Identifying topics of interest to your community and being proactive about engaging with people who can be advocates or add to the discussion is important. Asking questions and recognizing participation is an essential part of qualitative social engagement.

There’s an old saying, “People will work for a living but die for recognition” and companies should actively seek ways to create opportunities for the community to participate and then recognize the desired actions. Social listening for customer service is part of showing interest but marketing, PR, sales, recruiting and any other department with an audience in mind can be proactive about engaging through social channels as well.

The steady stream of social interactions published every hour is no different than conversations at a party or business event. Listen, show interest and people will want to engage with you.

What lessons have you learned as your company matures in its social media participation? How have you been able to scale social participation without compromising the quality of interactions?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on integrated content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely on a beach somewhere doing absolutely nothing.


  1. Like anything online, content is king. This is especially true with SMM (Social Media Marketing) as people on social media platforms do not wish to be advertised to. They wish to be entertained, engaged and reap some kind of benefit to being a fan of the company page. So many companies use social media as a means to showcase deals and advertise. It actually hurts them as a brand.

    • Thanks Guy, I agree and disagree. There’s a time and place for engagement and a time for offers. The obligation of the brand is to figure out when. If they never told stories intended to inspire purchases, it would miss the point of being mutually beneficial for brand and consumer.

  2. Laura Briere says:

    Wonderful post, Lee! It’s very true that HOW you grow your online community is much more important than how fast you do it or how far you go. Without consistent care, monitoring and nurturing, your community won’t do very much for you. You get what you give in most cases. =)

    • Thanks Laura – unless someone can monetize the social proof of saying they have “X” friends or connections, it doesn’t really mean as much as the ability to influence those connections to take action. 🙂

  3. Travis Waddoups says:

    I agree with Guy. Whenever I see advertising on social media sites, it actually works in the opposite effect for me. If I see advertisements, I will go out of my way to stay away from them. Companies need to use their social media to entertain their audience. Remember, the people who see your posts already like your business, so promoting yourself isn’t necessary.

  4. Linda N. says:

    Whether it’s blogging, tweeting, or posting on Facebook, we try to make it as personable as possible for our readers – we try to update as much as we can… otherwise, our content will seem old and outdated (even if we do not blog for a week).

    Anyway, great article! We featured it on our blog here:


  5. The point about size vs. quality is spot on. The thing about the big social networks is that there is a lot of distraction and people use them for different purposes. In some industries, the best places to be active are within niche social networks that are much more focused.

  6. caryl estrosas says:

    Many people are really sick of seeing ads. Outbound marketing tends to do that–it’s annoying! I guess some businesses look at social media the same way as outbound marketing. That’s why instead of engaging their clients or prospect customers, they are driving them away. Social media requires unlearning traditional marketing tactics and learning how inbound marketing works. Allow me to share my blog post:
    http://caryle.blogspot.com/2012/07/speed-up-sales-conversion-with-hubspot.html It briefly discusses inbound marketing and how it is going to benefit your business.

  7. Great post. I like the part on social networks are not about size, but about quality. I actually have an interesting experience with this which makes me disagree with the part of the post a bit.

    I wanted to experiment with a few thing on my personal Twitter account. One of those things was to see if people would be more likely to follow me if I have a large amount of followers. So, what I did was bought a couple thousand followers and after a couple weeks I noticed a great increase of real people in my industry that were following me. To me that is of great value. Whether that would translate to a business account I have no idea, but I feel it may be worth a look.

    Thank you for posting this great article!

  8. RizzoMB says:

    Another great post from Lee.

  9. Something I’ve noticed with our social media efforts is that, for certain industries, one social networking site seems to succeed over the rest. For instance, Juggle.com garners more user interaction on Twitter than on Facebook. On the other hand, our social networking debate site Debate.org gets all kinds of attention on Facebook, but next to nothing on Twitter. It is crucial to notice these trends so you are not wasting time on outlets that are a bad fit for your niche.

  10. Web Development Services says:

    Due to the increasing popularity of social media and its applications in the promotion and marketing of products, services and brands, born of a new type of media platforms highly effective social advertising.