How Popularity Ends

Popular things can begin to grate on you. Sometimes you wonder when people are going to stop sharing or talking about X item. The good news for the terminally bored is that popularity can and often does end.

The bad news is popular brands and personalities may not like that. Of course, something else will become popular and we can all suffer through the trivial presence of and conversation about new popular thing Y. A select few popular brands will be smart enough to evolve and maintain their popularity.

I was thinking of this in relation to a recent article Richard Becker wrote about social networks losing some of their shine with corporate marketers and PR pros. This popular trend may be losing its shine because of the way social media-based corporate promotion is “supposed to work” versus the very nature of marketing. Rich had a good counterpoint about social networks over-conditioning people to act in certain ways. And he is correct, the like-fest is not delivering the same marketing experience as promised.

The conversation sparked some additional thoughts on what ends popularity, in general. Here are some causes:

1) Reality Sets In


When a popular trend or fad hits, it often brings a promise. Bell bottom jeans thin your profile, that is until everyone starts wearing them and there is enough of a sample out there to immediately recognize the thin and the thick.

Or say you have a baby boy, and you decide to name him something that ends with an “n.” You like the sound, and want him to have a unique name. That is until everyone does it and the novelty wears off as soon as your kid gets to school and half the boys in the room are named Colin, Maven, Chillin’ and Whateverin’.

By the way, please don’t name your daughter Soleil. Thank you!

In all seriousness, I think this is the case with social networking-based marketing. Rich made this point pretty well in his post: The medium’s true nature may not lend itself to marketing, or the way communicators are being conditioned to market by both the networks themselves as well as industry thought leaders.

The hit or miss nature of many of these tactics creates a need for the analytical revolution of now. Big and small, company’s are tired of the latest gimmick (You need blogs. No, try Facebook and Twitter pages! Wait, it’s content! Now, it’s Facebook ads. Hold on, it’s Instagram for Business!). Experimentation remains the rule, but community activation and interest is an empirical must.

2) Boredom


Let’s be honest, over-exposure makes popular things boring! I love chocolate mousse. But if I ate chocolate mousse every day I’d get sick of it pretty quickly. Particularly, if it was my own or my wife’s chocolate mousse.

This phenomena is what my friends at Power Supply like to call single source provider. When the same person cooks your meals over and over again, your palate gets bored. Your poor spouse’s cooking is probably better than you think, you are suffering from eating the same thing cooked by the same person over and over again.

Ever listen to top 40 radio? I do now thanks to Soleil (remember, you cannot name your daughter Soleil). I’ll admit it, I kind of like the recent Taylor Swift songs that came out, until I heard them a few hundred times. Now I am bored. I am also severely bored with songs that have sampled deep male bass voices rhythmically chanting “Hey.” Sorry, Maroon5 you were late to this game (love the 5 by the way).

Sooner or later something new comes along, a new innovation or just a different jingle. How does a brand survive? It continues to innovate. You may be tired of iPhones, but you have to admit Apple does keep evolving the product. Every time it release a new iPhone, people get excited. Brands like Apple, BMW, Coke and others possess longevity grounded in commitments to evolve, whether in product or in marketing.

This may be Faceboook’s primary problem right now. No matter how much Zuck and co innovate, they cannot improve the Like, nor can they make it more attractive.

3) Stop Evolving


The other aspect of ending popularity deals with the behavior of the popular themselves. Perhaps they take their popularity for granted. They believe in their own myth, and then their behavior betrays their ego. There is no greater example of this than Lance Armstrong.

I would also argue that Blackberry lost its market position in spite of clear warning signs and competition. It believed its market form and IOS were superior, and did not respond to the challenges in time.

Or in some cases a personality or brand chooses different priorities, and simply stops taking the actions that maintain popularity. Have you ever seen a popular personality simply retire or retreat to focus on other things such as family matters? David Bowie literally disappeared for a decade to focus on raising his children.

In that vein, some brands choose not to extend themselves into other markets and form factors. They don’t innovate, and just remain true to their basic promise. However, the novelty of the item wears out.

I think Lincoln Logs are a classic example. You won’t see a Lincoln Logs movie anytime soon, nor will you see a Star Wars edition. Nor will you see a Madagascar edition with African animals. It doesn’t mean that Lincoln Logs aren’t a good toy. They are still awesome, but they lack the popularity of a brand like Lego which has expanded its toys and its marketing to meet the culture of now.

Whatever the cause, brands and people stop the actions that created their popularity. So they lose it.

What do you think about popularity and how it ends?

The Influence of the Unpopular

Image by Khiera Falconari

Have you seen “The Grey?” What a dark movie!

Of course, if you’re a wildlife fan, the wolf pack scenes were fantastic. And how menacing was the wolf pack leader? I don’t think he’d be invited to the high school prom. Yet the alpha male is the most influential of all the wolves in the pack.

Point being, influence isn’t always determined by popularity. Sometimes influence finds itself in the opposite.

That applies to human influence, too.
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PayPal Research Shows Strength of Community Trumps Popularity


We live in strange times in which an online following is considered the mark of success. This era of weblebrity seems caustic at times with companies, nonprofits and individuals chasing personal brands for their time. Yet, as we dig deeper we see that real influence online does not necessarily tether itself to the most well known, rather the most engaged. Some research released today, The Effectiveness of Celebrity Spokespeople in Social Fundraisers, conducted on case studies within the PayPal network validates this truth.

The paper, my final as a Zoetican and co-authored with Henry T. Dunbar, concludes that online celebrity fundraising efforts are hit and miss. Further some of the biggest names get outpaced by lesser known web-based personalities or weblebrities who activate deep ties to their communities.

The research shows over and over again that the hyper-engaged online personality with an authentic story is the one to succeed. Here are some examples:

  • A campaign on Facebook’s Causes to raise money for a new children’s hospital. In it, a 9-year-old cancer patient with virtually no online presence generated more donations than any other individual, including television star Ashton Kutcher.
  • A fundraising competition among bloggers —- including TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington and All Things D’s Kara Swisher —- was dominated by a blogger offering to parade around in a tomato suit.
  • The launch competition of Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees social giving website: Despite recruiting more than 60 celebrities to create “charity badges” on the site —- including Nicole Kidman and Ashley Judd -— the top fundraiser was a woman who blogs about scrapbooking and has an autistic son.
  • The PayPal-sponsored Regift the Fruitcake campaign on Facebook was won by Operation Smile with the help of Filipina singer Charice and her engaged fans. Other more notable celebrities participated, but didn’t deliver Charice’s impact.
  • TwitChange, which hosts charity auctions where fans buy mentions, follows, and retweets from celebrities on Twitter. Through three auctions in 2010, two of the celebrities drawing the most attention and highest bids have been actor Zachary Levi (of TV’s Chuck) and celebrity photographer Jeremy Cowart, beating stars such as country singer LeAnn Rimes and celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton.

As practitioners and communicators, we owe it to ourselves and our clients to dig deeper, and learn the underpinnings of the online social web. Real influence is more than popularity, and this paper goes a great distance to highlighting the important components of authenticity, real strong community engagement, and a willingness to actively work with a community to affect change.

The whole paper is online, and embedded below. Over the next few weeks, expect to see several full case studies outlining the principles of the paper published here. Special thanks to PayPal’s Clam Lorenz, Network for Good’s Katya Andresen,’s Anna Doherty, Operation Smile’s Kristi Kastrounis, and TwitChange’s Shaun King, all of whom provided the outstanding content and insights that made this paper possible.

Effectiveness of Celebrity Spokespeople in Social Fundraisers

The Quantification of Individual Social Equity

“Through self-doubt, we lose our sense of self-worth.”
Image by Alex Qin

As the echo chamber buzz about Empire Avenue rises, perhaps we should ask questions about what these “influence” tools actually accomplish. From Klout to Empire Avenue, we are literally assigning numbers and now stock values to people’s social network activity, creating a specific metric of influence. Beyond the increasing ethical issues that these games and tools offer, there are many questions they bring to mind. Are the metrics actually useful? Can you quantify what should be qualified? Are we leading ourselves astray? What are the repercussions on individuals’ well-being?


Time and again, it has been proven that social network popularity — follower counts, retweets, etc. — does not necessarily equate to actual influence. In actuality, influence really depends on the strength of community relationships that an individual maintains — strong ties as opposed to weak ties — in online networks. As studies show this influence can be spontaneous on social networks.

One of the best historical examples of real influence was DonorsChoose’s 2008 Blogger Challenge. The blogger challenge pitted some of the world’s most well known bloggers — Tech Crunch, Ars Technica, EnGadget –against each other in an effort to fundraise for students. But despite the big names, the winners were respectable but smaller bloggers like Sarah Bunting’s Tomato Nation blog and Fred Wilson’s AVC blog. All of these blogs arguable could have used their blogs and full Twitter and Facebook networks to their advantage, but the smaller ones with strong community ties won out.

More recent examples of this include the celebrities themselves (forget the digerati in the social media space). Popular celebrities love Twitter, and Twitchange auctions their Twitter accounts as a means to raise money. But of all the big stars that get on Twitchange, its stars like Zachary Levi (who?) and Jeremy Cowart that end up garnering higher bids. A more impassioned, engaged fan base — stronger ties — equals more yield in comparison to the Eva Longoria, LeeAnn Rimes and Tim Robbins of the world.


So right out of gate these online influence metrics (and note that they cannot include real world clout) are bound to fail because they cannot quantify what can only be qualified — passion. Strength of community comes from relational engagement and the bonds people feel with individuals within their networks. Popularity — most liked — does not necessarily equate to passion. That doesn’t mean that popular people can’t cultivate impassioned networks, but the two are not the same. Popularity is attention, strength of community is the passion that creates action.

Klout, Twitalyzer, Empire Avenue, all of these metrics are no more than PR 2.0 metrics. They are at best metrics to see who can get the most attention regularly across single or diverse social networks. To build entire social media marketing programs off of them would be a recipe for failure, as attention alone usually does not yield outcomes such as ROI.

The Ethics of Quantification


This is not to preach, but looking at Empire Avenue caused feelings of discomfort, and after reflection, it became clear why. It seems wrong to affix a price on people’s heads based on their social network interactions. The pricing of people’s worth has a long hard history in human history; markets of people have often had the word slavery affixed to them. Another nasty historical use of affixing market price to people is prostitution. Both of these historical and still present dark human behaviors make Empire Avenue uncomfortable.

Yes, it’s just a game, a stock market, but not everyone has voluntarily opted in. Yet, transactions have occurred. And look how serious the social media marketing industry is already treating it. It just has many implications that lack mindfulness. So for this blogger, there will be no investing in other voices (much less time) on Empire Avenue. Just like personal brands and corporate brands, the concept does not translate well.

Assigning a number regardless of the specific social network measurement still has implications that can hurt people. Consider that Klout is now being indexed by Google, and is coming up on the first page of some searches. Will important decisions like hiring be based on Klout scores? Isn’t this the same as not hiring someone because of a mediocre credit score?


Further, the ties between social media communicators and their activities as participants on these networks raises additional questions about ethics. Whether it is Klout Perks or simple pitches to boost stock value, can these individuals be considered objective in their praise?


As Trey Pennington, people are more important than Klout. And collective communities of people are more important than the individual. Social networking is about those communities. When we get away from the concept of community, and over-focus on individuals, an imbalance occurs.

Community managers and social media marketers should be careful, and leery of quantifiable influence metrics. They can provide a starting point for influencer relations programs, but they can not reveal what important qualitative community submersion brings. Further, they are not a holistic representation of social media, and how to market within them from a strategic perspective.

A Better Social Web Exists

Silhouette of Fire in Khaki Blue

A better social web exists. It exists within each of us.

Today, this social web isn’t popular, instead it has fascinating small pools and eddies of action and meaningful dialogue. But this can be The Social Web, a place better than a popularity driven attention sphere focused on the best looking unicorn (Bieber or Kardashian, take your pick).

Our virtual worlds can become a place of vigorous discourse. Rather than dismissing social media‘s incredibly empowering capability in the hands of the Fifth Estate, the better social web seeks to increase online literacy for Everyone using these tools. The Middle East is just an example of what driven people can do with intelligent networking tools. So much more can be accomplished if we apply ourselves.

Rather than arguing over ideas and dismissing what we don’t like as uncivil (and thus engage in civility debates), politeness and manners will take precedence. Discourse can include disagreement without discoloring it with a personal sense of “respectful” civility. Posturing and maintaining top rankings via attention metrics will mean less in the Real Social Web.

The Real Social Web is a meritocracy where great acts drive the ebb and flow of the tides. This social web of the future works for society instead of trying to fleece it. Accomplishing acts that matter will take precedence: Social change occurs, companies working hand in hand with nonprofits to achieve great acts, and companies serving their customers with better products in services, embracing them as part of an extended social enterprise.

Popcorn dreams? Maybe. But changemakers seize on ideas and make them happen. Dreams can be achieved.

What do we have to do to get there? We can’t turn a blind eye to it. As communicators we are as responsible for the current PR 2.0 driven popularity mess as Silicon Valley is. We have to look at ourselves, and see how we have created this and why? It is incumbent on us to mindfully evolve within to create this new social web of the future.

We must speak up, one by one. And we need to stop rewarding the old PR systems and the people who have lead us into the popularity trap. It’s time to start asking why these people are popular, and what they did “Before Social Media.” What qualifies them to lead the communications industry besides personal attention?

Together we can collectively build a better online community. This means educating ourselves and our customers on what real business outcomes are. It means focusing on the basics, instead of the hyperbole of the latest shiny object (Android Honeycomb app, anyone?). It means much stronger practices of metric based communications across the industry. Instead of focusing on the Klouts of the world we need to develop more myImpacts.

It means talking to our children and reinvesting our values back into great deeds and hard work instead of quick fixes and popularity. Digital literacy and understanding how information is served must become a critical function of our education system. Sustainable happiness will be the outcome as opposed to short term vicarious pleasure (yum, Pop Chips).

The Real Social Web of the future is a place where anyone can use these tools to achieve great things. Imagine writing literature of the digital future, making a child laugh, creating a virtual place where scientists from around the world work to conquer AIDs, building the best company in a sector, or achieving a more peaceful, democratic country.

Yeah, it’s a dream. But inside this heart a better social web exists. Some people live this dream already. It’s worth fighting for.

How Social Semantic Search Defines People

(Cartoon by David G. Klein from the New York Times)

Search is the underpinning of the Internet today, from the 1 billion traditional searches everyday on Google to providing references about a person on Twitter and delivering their stream feed on Facebook. Search has moved from simple page rank to an increasingly complex algorithm that weight’s social and semantic data points to deliver the outcomes most likely to please you. Personalization of search continues to evolve, but in turn it defines people and their choices.

Search — the technology itself — doesn’t bear responsibility for this. People do. People who use the Internet and its many free tools without understanding how the information is provided to them. They blindly accept search results or the search-based content feed without considering the source.

Consider the DecorMyEyes fiasco broken by the New York Times. Owner Vitaly Borker explained how he used intentionally created negative complaints about DecorMyEyes to game search results and place himself as a top ranked eyeglasses vendor. To Google’s credit, they promptly changed their algorithm to include more semantic weight (all negative or all positive disqualifying you), and the Department of Justice followed up with charges.

Social networks and applications also use search to source preferred content. Facebook’s activity feed is designed to source the most “interesting” content to people in your friends network are using the Open Graph API and likes. Search on Facebook is completely driven by the Open Graph (Like) protocol.

Of course, hashtags have demonstrated the power of search on Twitter. Twitter search was originally based on the acquired Summize search technology, and has been used to reference mentions and trends, too. Now Twitter (and other services) suggests people like you using semantic data.

The Danger of Homogeneous Definition

Google Organic.jpg

The danger in all of this personalized search — particularly when it’s largely based on peer interests — is creating a society of homogeneous sycophants that blindly accept the content sourced to them, either via search or feeds. Lest we think that people actually think through the click, consider organic click through rates on Google (as pictured above by SEO’s Neil Walker). Clicking through on the first few search terms is and has been the norm.

The addition of local semantic data to search only further complicates concepts of popularity. Algorithms tell people which burger joints, music venues, theaters, etc. are most likely to meet their interests.

When popularity is defined by an algorithm and served to people, homogeneos or mob thinking becomes the norm. This thinking feeds on the popular. Society is not currently trained to question the information presented to it. Thus algorithms — designed to create the output that will generate the most click throughs — become a critical determinant in defining people’s lives, and society as a whole.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Semantic information can weigh in when a system is gamed, and social search can provide the latest information based on people’s actual use and check-ins. However, idea markets are increasingly influenced by the popular, and not necessarily in a good way. Algorithms can keep bad ideas popular for longer periods of time.

It all points back to the need for society to teach better information skills. In an information economy, the ability to question and discern quality data presented via a plethora of media is an essential quality for democracy and individualism. It’s important to look deeper at online search, whether that’s because a search provided direct information or because an algorithm sourced a friend or influencer touting an idea or product. Quoting Doug Haslam, “Think for yourself. …you needn’t be part of some pack that can’t brook disagreement with your heroes.”

An educated Fifth Estate creates an evolutionary society, a mindless one creates results like Kim Kardashian as the number one search term on Bing for 2010. While many people find Kardashian attractive, should social semantic search tell every person — man and woman alike — what the icon of attractive is? Parents across America may object.

What do you think about how search and algorithms are defining our society?