March 7

The Truth About Social Media Followers

Mental Health, Social Media

Let's face it: social media followers aren't what they once were. If social media followers were a traditional asset that appreciates and depreciates in value, like a share of Apple stock or a car, the line graph over the past few years would be a massive slant down and to the right.

And it's by design. 

While every platform treats followers a bit differently, they've all fallen into a particular trend recently. Platforms made a major push for short-form video. And then they all started incentivizing the content over the creator. (We'll break this down more in just a bit).

And what that means is they're not really in the business of helping you build a following on their platform, nor are they in the business of showing your "followers" everything (or even the majority) of what you post. 

So let's look at the follower count fall from grace, what value they may still have, and what it means for creators. 

How Social Media Followers Ruled The World — Albeit Briefly

While there have been plenty examples of platforms that utilize some form of community-building, probably the first widely adopted concept of "followers" as an influential tool for promotion and brand building was MySpace. Back then, anybody could add you as a MySpace "friend" (though you could certainly control this). In music, people point to Taylor Swift's ballooning MySpace friend group as an early indicator of her eventual stardom. She had around 34,000 MySpace friends at the time of her debut album in 2006. By 2008, that number had grown to 650,000. She even turned some heads when she thanked her MySpace followers at the CMT Music Awards. 

By the time Facebook introduced the concept of the "like" button in 2009 (two years after it created Facebook "pages" for brands), the most savvy players in the content space saw the writing on the wall. Online followings were going to be critical in driving influence the future. This article by Ari Herstand from 10 years ago does a pretty decent job of summarizing how the industry looked at Facebook followings. It's a bit of a blast from the past and hilarious to think bands were getting signed based on these sentiments alone, but it really happened. 

YouTube started introducing plaques for different subscriber numbers in 2012. Instagram influencers with millions of followers could command five and six-figure contracts based largely on their supposed reach. Bots and fake followers flooded the market from black hat marketers. 

Social media followers were everything

The Shift To Serving The Content Over The Creator

Although virality-first apps like Vine, TikTok, and Musically had been around for a while, it wasn't until the pandemic-era boom of vertical video that we really saw a shift in how apps treated creators. And there are a few theories as to why this happened. 

The first is simply that companies realized just how big the influencer market was and that they weren't participating in it financially. On the one hand, Instagram is nothing without the content creators who give it "free" content and drive eyeballs. On the other, Instagram was also helping individuals create significant businesses off the back of its exposure and reach tools.

So these platforms slowly started tampering down, introducing new in-platform monetization options (that the companies get a piece of) and requiring more transparency around sponsored content. At the same time they allowed more individuals and companies to pay for exposure, they (allegedly) reduced the organic reach of content to followers. 

Another theory is that the advent of short-form video led to shorter attention spans and proved audiences were less likely to care if they recognized the creator in the content. Instead, they just wanted to see something that caught their attention and delivered a payoff. So platforms like TikTok started incentivizing content that kept people scrolling through the app. Every few videos, they'll deliver an advertisement. And as long as the ads also feel like content, they'll keep user attention.

In all likelihood, it's elements of both. These platforms thrive thanks to the communities that develop around them — but their primary goal is still "keep eyes and sell ads." So now you've got creators with millions of followers who only reach 1 percent of that with the average post because the platform determined the post itself wasn't engaging enough. But when they create an engaging post, it's more likely to hit hundreds of thousands or even millions of people based off their audience. But they still have to make an engaging post, just like somebody with 100 followers.

Hence, serving the content over the creator. 

Social Media Followers Are An Indicator Of Past Success — Not A Predictor Of Future Success

Accruing a lot of followers doesn't guarantee you any future success with your content. It just means you've made successful content in the past. But that doesn't mean it's useless, either.

Every platform treats followers a little differently, but there is a higher likelihood that your content's floor (e.g. the fewest views each piece of content will receive) increases with your following. But that floor is rarely commensurate with your following increase. For instance, if you're starting out on TikTok you'll likely get between 200 and 300 views per video no matter what until you find the right hook. Even if you have 10,000 followers. But maybe once you hit 100,000 followers, you're more likely to hit at least 500-1,000 views with every video. And by the time you hit 1 million followers, you're hitting 10,000 views minimum per video. 

It's an increase, but it's far less than you'd expect if platforms truly valued your following. (After all 10,000 views is still only 1 percent of your following if you have 1 million followers, and not even all of those views will necessarily come from your followers). 

Platforms like TikTok and YouTube do allow users a faster avenue to checking up on people they've followed in the past. TikTok has a "Following" and a "Friends" feed, and YouTube allows you to arrange and select your subscribed channels. But these platforms would much rather send you curated content it has found will keep your eyes on the platform longer based on what it knows about viewers, not based on what creators you've told it that you already like. In fact, TikTok's Creativity Program Beta only rewards views from the "For You" feed (even though the platform runs ads on the For You, Following, and Friends feeds). 

So What Does It Mean For The Future Of Content?

It's hard to say what role social media followers will have in future strategies. They will likely always hold some sort of place on social media apps, even if their direct correlation to content exposure is widely diminished. 

Financial company Karat introduced a credit card for high earning content creators that still takes following into account (among other things). According to a CNBC article, "YouTubers should generally have at least 100,000 followers; Instagrammers should have at least 125,000 followers; and TikTokers should have a whopping 2.5 million followers. [Co-founder Eric] Wei estimates that the average cardholder has an annual income of more than $500,000."

So clearly the metric still holds value. Plus, we're seeing other social media-adjacent platforms like Substack and Patreon utilize followers in a still very relevant way. (For what it's worth a Substack writer with 68,000 subscribers qualified for the Karat card). 

However, it does mean that content creators may start to feel a bit more free to experiment in their content styles. In the past, many social media coaches taught that creators should "niche down" in order to build a cultivated following that knows exactly what they're going to get from you. Now, if you're a bit more inclined to create a variety of content styles, you're less at the mercy of an audience who decided they liked you for that one specific thing you did. 

And of course, the ever-changing value of social media followers means you should continue to drive people from your social media channels to a more controlled place, like an email list, text list, or Discord server. But if you've been reading RootNote's Learn Stuff section for a while now, you probably already knew that : )


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