“Facebook Dominated by ‘power users’”: Social Networks Following the Pareto Principle

“Facebook Dominated by ‘power users’”: Social Networks Following the Pareto Principle

4 February, 2012 9:36 am 17,839 comments

A story in today’s online Daily Telegraph, entitled “Facebook dominated by ‘power users’” was perhaps meant to spark intrigue into the nuances of Social Media. Unfortunately, the only response it elicited from me was “well, yes”.

There was a very good reason for this: I think that most people who work in or with digital media realised this long ago. We even have names for these ‘power users: the ‘linkorati’ and ‘influencers”. Many of our strategies revolve around engaging them, courting them so they share our content and introduce others to our and our clients’ brands. Or, they try to turn our fans and followers into influencers, preferably influencing others in their decisions .

Really, this research doesn’t add anything to the toolbox of those people to whom it will be most interesting. Take this 2010 article from Social Media Examiner on increasing the quality of your Facebook fans. It talks about creating ‘an exclusive promotion for influencers’. That was two years ago, and even then the existance of influencers was old news. We knew they existed, and we were just working out how to use this to our advantage.

Even worse for Pew Internet, the company who ran this research, we recognise something that their research does not cover. These Facebook influencers are also likely to be influencers on Twitter, in the blogosphere, and on other social networks. Facebook is just a scaled-down version of the social media macrocosm, so our strategies reach far wider than Pew Internet’s efforts.

What Does all This Have to do With the Pareto Principle?

First, I guess I should answer the question “what is the Pareto principle”? This is actually something we use almost every day for keyword research, on-page optimisation, and by our development teams for debugging code. We usually call it “the 80/20 rule”.

The history of this rule is rather interesting. In 1906 economist Vilfredo Pareto noted that roughly 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. The interesting part is that his studies into a variety of other countries revealed the same rule of thumb applied (actually the split varied between 70/30 and 90/10 but 80/20 worked as a good estimate for most of the time). Expanding this research, a 1992 United Nations Development Program Report found that the richest 20% of the world’s population controlled 83% of the world’s wealth. This means that Pareto’s law scales: things look exactly the same close up – one country’s land distribution – or far away – the whole world’s.

Others have expanded the reach of this principle into almost every area of business, from health and safety – 20% of hazards cause 80% of accidents – to sales – 20% of your clients will bring 80% of your revenue, and 20% of your clients will cause you 80% of your grief. In SEO, we recognise that 20% of the keywords people use make up 80% of the queries in search engines. We even have cool graphs to illustrate this, like the one below by SEOMoz (they use the 70/30 rule here).

Search demand graph from SEOMoz


What does that mean for digital marketers?

Well, it means that a number of the decisions we in digital marketing make are already based on the Pareto principle. It makes sense that social networking follows this principle as well. In fact, we might feel something was slightly amiss if it didn’t. Because the Pareto principle scales, we would also expect¬†a single social network to follow the 80/20 rule, and feel strange if it didn’t. Imagine a version of Facebook where everybody shared the same amount of content, Liked the same number of things, and was tagged in the same number of drunken misadventures. It all gets a bit Brazil-like just thinking about it.

It also means that this was perhaps an unnecessary¬†piece of research. Pew Internet could have called a group of digital marketing or social media agencies, asked them a couple of questions each, and spent the rest of their time researching the best flavour of doughnut at Krispy Kreme. Sorry Pew, but all this also means your research really doesn’t impact us in the digital sphere very much at all.


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