Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
November 13, 2009 2:49 PM

Your Personal Brand Is Not Scalable

How are you going to outsource or pass-on some of the conversations and opportunities that will come your way as more and more people follow, friend and connect to you?

The answer is simple: you can't. And, because you can't, it's time we all started to admit that we are going to let people down, and that this is going to cause a major rift in how people connect in online social networks, who they follow and how "real" the relationships really are. Seth Godin recently tackled this in a Blog post entitled, Dunbar's Number isn't just a number, it's the law. Some people loved his thoughts, others disagreed (welcome to the conversation!). His point:

"Dunbar postulated that the typical human being can only have 150 friends. One hundred fifty people in the tribe. After that, we just aren't cognitively organized to handle and track new people easily... Some people online are trying to flout Dunbar's number, to become connected and actual friends with tens of thousands of people at once. And guess what? It doesn't scale. You might be able to stretch to 200 or 400, but no, you can't effectively engage at a tribal level with a thousand people. You get the politician's glassy-eyed gaze or the celebrity's empty stare. And then the nature of the relationship is changed. I can tell when this happens. I'm guessing you can too."

Your Personal Brand is not scalable.

Here's a true story: recently there have been many interesting marketing/Social Media opportunities brought to my attention due to the launch of the book, Six Pixels of Separation. In this process, I have been privy to seeing how some of the people who have major online followings work. All of them (including me) struggle to maintain their online ties. In fact, in one instance during a marketing opportunity, one of the individuals with a major following came out and said, "unless I am being paid, I simply don't have the time to commit to this." In "normal" circumstances this is fine, but here's what's really happening: this individual got the fame, popularity and attention because of their community. Now, when that community asks for help, they simply don't have the bandwidth unless there is a dollar amount attached to it.

It's plain to see where this leading.

On the last episode of Media Hacks (which is also episode #176 of the Six Pixels of Separation Podcast), Julien Smith (co-author of Trust Agents) and I discussed the challenge that businesses have when building community. We both arrived at the same conclusion: you can't build a community when you need it. You have to be building a community long before you need it (so that it's there for you when you need it). That concept becomes even more complex for individuals because...

Community and relationships are not about transactions, they are about interactions. Interactions take time and there's only so much time in the day.

In the end, the number may not be 150 and it may not even be 1500, but real interactions between real human beings take time. So, unless you have a staff, team and crew - and it's known from the outset that your involvement will be limited - be very careful about how you build your online community and who you connect with. If it's just a game of numbers - much like many of the bigger corporations who engage in Social Media - you are going to quickly start to let people down. And those are the exact people who "put you there" in the first place.

Any ideas on how to make a Personal Brand more scalable?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Mike Kujawski
    Mitch Joel

    Brilliantly written as usual. I have struggled with the issue of personal brand scalability for some time now. It's almost a catch 22. I want to keep connecting and being engaged with new members of the community, however I find that the rule of diminishing returns applies with each additional person that I connect with. I simply cannot give back as much on an individual level. My only solution thus far has been to come up with as many time-saving resources as possible (wikis, pre-written emails, instructional tutorials, slideshare presentations, blog posts, etc...), in order to achieve economies of scale for 60% of the people asking me questions. The other 40% I haven't figured out yet, so I personally connect, albeit with a growing delay in response time.

    Reply
  • Posted by Judi
    Judi

    Great blog post, Mitch. As per usual...

    The notion of building a community before you need it is so powerful! I've seen many organizations decide they need to do something, and so start from scratch and look for results overnight!

    But, I do have a comment regarding the number of people one person can connect to meaningfully... If people create multiple communities for multiple purposes, could we then challenge the magic 150 number? I'm not suggesting thousands - there are "followings" that look obscene at times and I question their real value. But, I think it is reasonable to think that a person may be specifically engaged in, for example, their work/industry, their favourite sport/sport team and their charity of choice. Within each of those elements, it is easy to conceive that someone could have a community of 100+ people that they connect with, meaningfully, for that specific conversation.

    Thoughts?

    Thanks again!
    Judi
    @chieflemonhead

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    I agree completely with what you said. This situation is particularly hard on small businesses with limited ressources. It will be a challenge. Web 2.0 is still a dream for many, and a challenge for others....

    Reply
  • Posted by Ujwal Arkalgud
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch, I absolutely agree. However, I think the key is to try...
    I'd much rather tweet you 50 times and get one reply from the real you, than receive response each time from some ghost writer/tweeter.

    Additionally, I believe that people understand that no one's that scalable...and hence lower their expectations accordingly. At least I have.

    @interpretivist

    Reply
  • Posted by Jen Zingsheim
    Mitch Joel

    I agree completely--I referred to this inability to scale as social media's Achilles Heel (here, if you're interested: http://mediabullseye.com/mb/2008/08/social-media-meet-achilles.html ).

    Some politicians I used to work with could push the boundaries of Dunbar's number--they actually did have the capacity to forge personal connections with a significant number of people. I looked at this as a unique characteristic that made them suited for their chosen profession--the ability to attend a fundraiser with 500 attendees and address fully half of them by name, inquire about their kids and parents, etc. was a skill I witnessed and was blown away by.

    But it's not typical. This is indeed a weak spot, and the recognition of that is the first step to addressing how to work with the limitation.

    Reply
  • Posted by Tom Asacker
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch, I like the sentiment, a lot. Unfortunately, it's simply not true.

    Most "personal brands" are hooked on scale, and they either use the media or the "community" to get it. Why? Because scale = attention and attention = the brand. And once scale is achieved; the brand "established;" and personal goals met or set in motion; the "need" for community wanes.

    That's obviously not the case for people who are building lasting, mutually beneficial relationships. But most "personal brands" trade on casual, superficial ones. And it gets them what they are, ultimately, after (I'm sure I don't need to provide you with names). :)

    For example, publishers sign the biggest book deals with people who have "attention," and not those with the best ideas. Conference producers pay the most for keynote speakers with the most attention, and not those who are best able to help their attendees. Media provides attention to people WITH attention, because their audiences are hooked on celebrity. And so on.

    I think that's why people love sports. Athletes don't consciously set out to create a personal brand (other than a few notable exceptions like Ali). Instead, their brands are a by-product of sweat and talent, with little regard for what others may think. It's refreshing: "I don't care if you like me or not. But you do love to watch me play, don't you?"

    Reply
  • Posted by Chris Simmons
    Mitch Joel

    Great blog Mitch.

    Would personal branding evolve to be more like advertising (with 5000 friends) if you cannot connect with your audience and end up communicating at the people in your friends list?

    I do not believe that personal branding is scalable because of an individuals' limitations. How could one person maintain personal FB connections with 5000 people for example?

    And if you had a staff to respond to your connections on your behave would it still be considered personal branding if it isn't you?

    Is FB going to become another picture in picture channel on cable? XBox or Playstation 3? as one huge complex flow of virtual infomercials?

    My observation is that FB evolving to become primarily an advertising platform that you can personalize. The original intent of FB will be lost over a relatively short period of time and personal connectivity (personal branding) will be a sub function of the the web site.

    Cheers,
    Chris

    Reply
  • Posted by Neicole Crepeau
    Mitch Joel

    I totally agree. And it's nice to hear a well-known "expert" like Seth Godin say it. I've thought the same for a while, and blogged about it in Social Media Marketing Needs to Grow Up (http://bit.ly/cK17l).

    I think that you can still maintain and nurture your community, by a strategy of providing good content and valuable information (or other value) to them. Once the community grows to the size where regular personal interactions with everyone aren't feasible, you need to switch your strategy. And be very transparent and honest about it. I think the thing that sometimes bites people in the butt is not acknowledging the reality. That's just misleading and dishonest. Don't do it.

    Reply
  • Posted by Udi Dahan
    Mitch Joel

    What I've been doing is semi-fragmenting topics off of my personal brand and growing a pyramid underneath me there. As the "founder" of the topic, success of the community in that topic is always related back to me. However, I can grow sub-gurus in that topic space which answer many questions of the broader community for that topic.

    Note that these sub-gurus have identities of their own right, they don't ghost-write under my name.

    I haven't had the chance to see this play out long-term, but it's been working well now for the first 7-8 months I've been doing it. Current community size is about 450. This requires some extra investment but helps the community feel like they aren't being abandoned as the numbers grow.

    Great post.

    Reply
  • Posted by Udi Dahan
    Mitch Joel

    What I've been doing is semi-fragmenting topics off of my personal brand and growing a pyramid underneath me there. As the "founder" of the topic, success of the community in that topic is always related back to me. However, I can grow sub-gurus in that topic space which answer many questions of the broader community for that topic.

    Note that these sub-gurus have identities of their own right, they don't ghost-write under my name.

    I haven't had the chance to see this play out long-term, but it's been working well now for the first 7-8 months I've been doing it. Current community size is about 450. This requires some extra investment but helps the community feel like they aren't being abandoned as the numbers grow.

    Great post.

    Reply
  • Posted by Mike Brown
    Mitch Joel

    I've found "shared experiences" to be at the heart of successful relationships. To the extent people have common experiences, it strengthens and sustains a relationship, even if contact levels may be minimal for some time. The degree of emotional intensity in the experiences also drives memorability, recognizing emotional intensity isn't always bi-directional , i.e., fans have intensely emotional experiences with (Twitter rock)stars who have no emotional connection in return. In the case Mitch mentions, money can be a potential source of emotional intensity!

    While social networking allows for many more "shared" experiences, it doesn't facilitate a comparable expansion in emotional capacity. Thinking about Twitter, it's clear an RT or a brief DM exchange provides little emotional impact. That makes it tough to remember some people you may have engaged with even a few months ago.

    What's the take away for personal branding? Beyond simply managing numbers, manage how you create opportunities for shared experiences (online and offline, i.e., try going to tweetups) and emotional connections within your network over time. By actively, acting on these variables, you can introduce new shared experiences to help keep a waning relationships going amid an expanding network.

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    I appreciate all of the work you put into writing your book & I am looking forward to reading it. I am posting my plans for using Web2.0 and social media in 2010. I plan to help those with developmental and physical disabilities form meaningful connections with their families, as well as their larger communities, through work with non-profit service agencies. My work involves directly assisting adults with disabilities in improving their physical mobility skills, and by extension their interpersonal skills. I believe there can be a great benefit to this population by integrating them into a social media community. Often the effects of isolation and depression affect individuals in more detrimental ways then the disabilities that bring them into the social service sector in the first place. In my experience, individuals with disabilities can benefit from a social media presence by increasing their opportunity to be seen and heard in a social setting, and thereby decreasing their sense of isolation and “differentness�. It is a simple idea that is already expanding social horizons for many individuals with disabilities, and bringing a welcome sense of empowerment to them and to their communities. I hope that people reading this will encourage and assist those they know with disabilities to take a first step, maybe open a facebook page, and work to create community that is inclusive of the disabled and their families through their own use of social media platforms. The book “Connected � (Christakis and Fowler, 2009) has an excellent discussion on the relationship between social relationships and their impact on health within the larger community. I think you would find it very interesting. Again, look forward to reading your book and becoming more informed. I also plan to use the following site to broadcast my message: http://www.claim.io/welcome/?affiliate_id=30

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    The time it takes to build a community is the toughest message to relay to my clients who are entrepreneurs and small businesses. They are hoping it can be done quickly and see results immediately. Some don't want to hear about the amount of time it will take. But those that are willing to invest the time are finding they like how social media fits into their marketing plans.

    Reply
  • Posted by gregorylent
    gregorylent

    this will all seem so dated in just a few years ...

    wanna be a true thought leader? ..

    drop all of these concepts, think freshly

    Reply
  • Posted by Jim Crocker
    Mitch Joel

    Anybody see Gary Vaynerchuk on his book tour ('why now is the time to crush it!')? Dude's brand is seriously scalable. Why? Because he's smart and he works harder than anybody else at it. After spending the day and evening talking to audiences in Toronto he posted an episode of Wine Library TV direct from his hotel room - where he reviewed the wine from the mini bar! You want a lesson in personal branding? Check out Gary V.

    Reply
  • There is an obvious (to me) solution to this very real challenge: trusted, power Social Networking users who can serve as hubs and connect the various spokes to businesses and consumers.

    I explain this more fully in a post I will link to this reply that I was motivated to write by this article.

    Reply
  • Posted by Matthew Brown
    Mitch Joel

    I think as some earlier comments mentioned that it is possible to scale your personal brand, it just means losing some or a lot of the personal relationship. In saying that though, the more work you put in the more you can get out. Obviously we can't all spend all of our waking hours maintaining our relationships and also growing our personal brand, but I think that if we could, the number of relationships and hence brand scalability could be higher.

    Reply
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