Doctor SpinDigital FirstSocial Media CommsCritical Mass in Social Media — How Many Followers Do You Need?

Critical Mass in Social Media — How Many Followers Do You Need?

Why it makes business sense to go for critical mass.

How many followers, fans, and subscribers equal critical mass?

Everyone wants more followers on social media.
Businesses, too.

At the same time, marketing experts are shouting at the top of their lungs that the actual number of followers doesn’t matter; it’s all about having the right followers. And this is all accompanied by anxious whispers in the office hallways about who has bought their followers and who hasn’t.

Do your number of followers, fans, and subscribers matter?

Table of Contents

    Critical Mass in Social Media

    Well, the number of followers, fans, and subscribers doesn’t matter — to a degree. You could have 100,000 fake followers on Twitter, and it wouldn’t matter if your statistics tell you that 5,000 saw your last tweet because they were all bots anyway.

    Or, you could have 16,000 followers as I do, but I’m not as active there as I once was—which the algorithm doesn’t like. In contrast, I have half my Twitter volume of followers on Instagram, where I am active at the moment, but thousands of per cent more engagement.

    The actual number of followers, fans, and subscribers matters very little.

    Too many followers, fans, and subscribers can be a problem if your brand loses momentum. If you get 100 Facebook likes per week on average, it’s better to have 50 fans (200% engagement) than 5,000 (2% engagement).

    So, all those marketing experts aren’t wrong per se. But there’s still something to be said about simply having too few followers as a business.

    Return on Engagement vs Following Size

    Suppose a business hires one person to run all of its social channels, which costs 2,000€ per week in total (including taxes, rental fees, content software licensing etc.). How many followers must this employee engage each week to break even?

    There are many ways to attribute value to social media marketing, and the right choice depends on the business itself.

    The most common approach is calculating the alternative cost for the brand’s organic reach. How much would it cost to reach all those people with advertising? This is in many ways an outdated (and hated) model, but that’s beside the point for this blog post; the matter is that there are better or worse ways to attribute value to your online marketing efforts — but it’s something that most businesses have to do.

    If you have to reach 100,000 people to convert customers to a value of 2,000€ per week, it matters how many fans you have at the beginning of that week.

    Critical Mass (of Quality Followers)

    A brand’s total average organic reach tends to be stable. Social network algorithms change, but usually not that fast.

    Engagement rates fluctuate with content quality and competition, but not that much. Social follower volumes tend to go up in most cases, but not that much. Conversion rates vary with traffic quality and UIX, but usually not that much.

    Whether or not you start the week with a big enough bulk of social media followers, you can (especially with Facebook Zero) pay for some of your weekly reaches. Still, every cent must be earned back into your business with interest — sooner or later.

    Critical Mass- Diffusion of Innovation
    The diffusion of the innovation curve.

    This allows us to approximate a specific number of followers you need to break even financially. This number of followers is what is referred to as critical mass. I

    f we assume that conversion rates and follower reach ratios stay reasonably stable, we can approximate how many followers a brand needs to break even.

    Conversions needed to hit break-even / the average follower reach ratio = your brand’s critical mass of followers

    Example: I’ve estimated to need one quality lead every three weeks to sustain my freelance business healthily. To get this from blogging, tweeting, and gramming alone, I need to start every week with a weekly base of 15,000 quality followers — out of which about 8% will see at least one of my updates. Hence, 15,000 social media followers are the critical mass to start the week for my freelance business. 1Unfortunately, not all followers are human beings, and you should beware of ghost followers, i.e. bots, click farm accounts, automated follower software etc. Too many fake followers will negatively … Continue reading

    Not all social accounts are equally valuable to a business. For me, blog readers and subscribers far outweigh Facebook and Twitter followers.

    Approximating your brand’s critical mass in social media is no exact science — and it’s no guarantee. But we must make a much deeper and more business-critical point about a brand’s critical mass in social media.

    Strategies Before and After Critical Mass

    Almost every brand that starts on social media will lose money. This is simply because their social accounts haven’t yet reached critical mass. This leads us to the following key insights:

    1. At the start, invest heavily in programmatic advertising. Investing in aggressive social media strategies to reach critical mass is essential. You’ll need to invest in programmatic advertising to grow in typical cases.

    2. Accept a negative ROI in the beginning. Key stakeholders must be made aware of the critical mass challenge. They must get a chance to understand how investments in this space scale.

    3. Don’t try to cheat the system with ghost followers. If you acquire ghost followers, your conversion rates will decrease, and you’ll be forced to gain even more followers.

    4. When you reach critical mass, invest in quality. The brand’s aggressive investments must cool off when you get critical mass. Now you should focus on engagement quality instead of growth.

    Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)

    Bonus Resource: Avoid Ghost Followers

    How to Avoid Ghost Followers

    Inactive and passive followers, ghost followers, will destroy your engagement scores and there undermine your social media reach and growth are a few rules of thumb for keeping clear of ghost followers:

    • Grow organically from the start. Having a small but highly engaged community is better than attracting huge bulks of ghost followers—especially if you share your authority with them by engaging with them back.
    • Stay consistent in one niche. Attracting a homogenous audience (in terms of what exact content they typically will engage with) is critical for long-term success in social media. For more insight, see also the follower contract.
    • Engage strategically wise. Who you engage with (follow, like, comment, share) will send necessary signals to the algorithm. Ensure to engage consistently with the particular type of audience you want to attract.
    • Remove or unsubscribe ghosts. When possible, proactively remove inactive followers by either eliminating or unsubscribing them. Not all social networks allow for this, but you should use this tactic wherever it’s applicable.

      Learn more about ghost followers.

    Bonus Resource: The Follower Contract

    The Follower Contract

    Dear brand,

    • Yes, I’m now following you. Congratulations (to you).
    • I followed you based on what you’ve demonstrated in the past, so don’t be surprised if I’ll stop engaging (or unfollowing) if you do other stuff.
    • You now have my permission to provide me with the type of content that first attracted me to your brand.
    • Any potential involvement on my part will be determined by me, the follower, on a future case-by-case basis.
    • My follow is not a ‘payment’ for your past accomplishments; my follow is an ‘advance payment’ for what I expect from you in the future.
    • It would be best if you always presupposed that I’m interested in myself and my friends first and then, maybe, in your brand.
    • Until we part ways, I expect you to be clear about my potential involvement in your cause.

      Best regards,
      Your new follower

      Learn more about follower contracts.
    1 Unfortunately, not all followers are human beings, and you should beware of ghost followers, i.e. bots, click farm accounts, automated follower software etc. Too many fake followers will negatively impact your chances of successfully negotiating social media algorithms.


    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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