Why Small is Beautiful on Social Media

We’ve all seen them: unknown bands with garish Myspaces and inexplicably gigantic numbers of fans and plays, or shady twitter marketers promoting the newest diet and pharmaceutical crazes to legions of followers. But what do big numbers really mean on social media? What do scores of fans matter if none of them are passionate about your music?

Social media is about more than numbers: it is primarily about influence. Having a massive number of friends or followers doesn’t always correlate with an influential presence. Conventional wisdom suggests that millions of followers means influence on grand scale, but research into influence on social media casts doubt on that theory. Last September, Northwestern professor Alok Choudhary and graduate student Ramanathan Narayanan released a study which applied mathematical algorithms to Twitter data to gage the influence of celebrities. Their conclusion: the majority of celebrity tweets go largely ignored. A similar study by Meeyoung Cha from the Max Planck Institute returned similar results: influence does not strongly correspond with the size of an artist’s fan base.

More recently, a  a study conducted by Yahoo research added credence to the power of the small band. After surveying the twitter behavior of millions of users Yahoo found that for marketers the word of a celebrity is often worth less than expected. “It’s better to trigger many small cascades,” said Duncan Watts, Yahoo’s principal researcher on the project, “Ordinary influencers are promising. Grind away [in] a very systematic manner.”

As the number of followers a band or artist has goes up, the likelihood that those individual fans are passionate about your music goes down. Having a large fan base on social media is a good thing, but it is important to increase your fan base organically. As more people hear your music, your following will grow naturally. Plenty of sites offer illegal bots that boost the number of friends and followers you have on Myspace, Twitter and Facebook, but followers that are essentially only numbers on a screen are unlikely to listen to your music or take action based on your status updates.

On Headliner fm, bands and artists with large fan bases don’t always have the promoting power you might expect. It is usually more effective to promote with a group of smaller artists than it is to promote with one or two large artists. Ultimately, Headliner is about reach, but it is also about engagement. Bands with smaller fan bases usually have engaged fans with a committed interest in the band’s music. These fans are more likely to pay attention when a favorite band makes a recommendation.

Social media is a great way to communicate with fans, but it is better to have hundreds of passionate and committed fans than thousands of indifferent followers. Growing your fan base on social media is important for all artists in the digital age, but that growth needs to occur naturally over time as you reach more fans with your music.