The Fallacy of Reach in the Network

Mark CubanMark Cuban understands broadcasting, more specifically the value proposition of one-to-many. While he has his hands in many things, his fortune came through the sale of broadcast.com to Yahoo in 1999. He sold the company for $5.7 billion and the rest, they say, is history. So it’s really no surprise that Mr. Cuban is miffed that Facebook wants him to pay for the privilege of spamming sending messages to the many fans of his Dallas Mavericks. He told ReadWrite’s Dan Lyons that unless Facebook changes its current form, he’s moving his fandom to another form of social media: Twitter, Tumblr or even MySpace.

We are moving far more aggressively into Twitter and reducing any and all emphasis on Facebook,” Cuban says, via email. “We won’t abandon Facebook, we will still use it, but our priority is to add followers that our brands can reach on non-Facebook platforms first.”

Cuban and other corporate Facebook members are howling because new rules on the social network make it harder for brands to reach people without spending big money on sponsored posts.

That’s because in September Facebook changed the algorithm that controls which messages get through to which members. The result is that some brands a sharp drop off in the reach of their posts — as much as 50% in some cases.(Emphasis added)

His problem is with the word “reach,” a one-to-many marketing term that describes the size of one’s audience. It also conveniently dehumanizes that audience by turning them into numbers for the serving of oneself. This is highly problematic in the 21st Century, because our culture is now a network, not a potential audience.

The value of one-to-many is the origin of marketing, so its roots run deep in the soil of hierarchical economics. If you can make your pitch to enough people at the same time, all sorts of wonderful things can happen for you. P. T. Barnum knew this, and so does Mark Cuban. The trick, of course, is to buy your way — or manipulate your way — in front of enough people so that other economic laws can work on your behalf. As I’ve noted previously, a stage is the earliest version of this, whether that was a big rock; higher ground occupied by the toughest and meanest; or a fancy theater where elegant plays were presented. The contemporary list includes newspapers, radio and the ultimate, television.

A great many people view the Web as the latest version of one-to-many innovation, including Mr. Cuban, and this is the kind of naïveté that is causing many to question his smarts (Hey Mark Cuban: Of course Facebook is charging you — what did you expect?). This belief completely misses the point of the Web, however, and leads its believers into very unstable ground in terms of creating value via the network. I’ve been writing for years that the Web can be seen as a form of one-to-many — especially in times of crisis — but at its essence, the Web is a 3-way communications tool, the first of its kind in the history of humankind. It’s a network, not a playground for one-to-many manipulation.

The idea of “audience” assumes a choice to get up and leave, but the reality is that most don’t. Another assumption is that even those who do leave can be wooed back, because while the audience has choices, they are limited. None of this is true with the Web. Choices aren’t limited. The audience can talk back. And most importantly, they can talk to each other. This is “the Great Horizontal,” as described by Jay Rosen and others.

People who only function from a one-to-many mindset disrespect these attributes when they treat fans or followers as an audience. And it’s inevitable that marketers will do so. Inevitable.

I’m a pizza fan, and one of the earliest Pizza companies to explore the Web for “customer service” was Papa John’s. I love their pizza and was a willing participant in a Monday email that offered a special. Then, it became several days a week, and now it’s daily. The problem is that marketers can’t resist the opportunity to use ANY connection to sell their wares or increase those sales. What this does is destroy the specialness of that Monday coupon and turn Papa John’s correspondence into spam.

Like millions of others, I donated $10 to the Red Cross in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. This involved a text message to a universal code (90999). In addition to my receipt, I received a separate pitch for “Red Cross news,” up to 4 messages per month. Even charities can’t resist the science that for every X amount of requests, X number will say “yes.” This may be smart business, but again, it’s exploitive, manipulative and dehumanizing.

When I agree to “follow” someone via social media, the presumption is that I wish them to engage with me, big brand or otherwise. I’m also hoping to engage with them, although I’m not naïve. What I’m not doing is signing up for spam. The problem is that when this social engagement is granted, the one receiving this permission (e.g. “the brand”) can’t resist the broadcast axiom that power belongs to the one with the reach. “Once you agree to follow me,” this approach reasons, “I can send you whatever and how much ever I wish.” This then moves the brand’s messages into the category of spam.

Is there a form of “reach” at play in the network? Probably yes, but it’s certainly different than old school one-to-many. How should a brand like The Dallas Mavericks use social media for business purposes? I think we’re still writing the book on this one, but you’re safe actually engaging with people rather than throwing things at them.

Look, Mark Cuban is a good guy, and the Mavericks are my favorite pro sports team. He’s used social media to give tickets away, which is great, but it’s really no different than a radio promotion. If you want to use the Web that way, you know what? You should pay for it.

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  1. […] a little and discuss Facebook and the concept of “reach.” Terry Heaton has written a blog post on “The Fallacy of Reach in the Network.” While this might sound a little too […]

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