“I Don’t Need a Mailing List: I Use Social Media”

Last week in an aside, I noted I could have an email list hosted on a formal ESP and send unlimited messages to that list for just $19/month. That’s a pretty reasonable figure to be sure, but it’s not as cheap as social media: Facebook is free. Why pay when you can post to Facebook all you want?

Well, two reasons: 1) in doing that you’re building a business on someone else’s “real estate,” and 2) you can’t depend on them to get a message out — you cannot reliably communicate with your customers. Let’s look at both of those issues.

Someone Else’s Real Estate

Your business is your business, and unless your name is Mark Zuckerberg, your business is not Facebook. Building on their platform means you’re totally at their mercy. What if you lose your access? What if they don’t like what you’re doing, and they shut you down (and your transgression could be real, or imagined)? Your business is gone: they “own the list” of your “customers” because those people are really their customers.

That’s not a rational risk to take, just like you wouldn’t pay to have a building constructed on a vacant lot you’re renting on a month-to-month basis — literally building a business on someone else’s real estate.

If you don’t have a way to contact your customers directly, and can do that even if you get kicked off Facebook (or Youtube or Pinterest or anywhere else you’re trying to “build a business”) — if you don’t have the ability to take the means of contacting your own list of customers with you when you leave — then you’re not building your own business, you’re building someone else’s.

Getting the Message Out

Still, those free eyeballs at Facebook are nice! What’s not to like?! This: Facebook (and let’s be clear, they’re the 800 lb. gorilla in the social media space) completely controls who sees any specific post made there. After all, it is their real estate, so they’re entitled to set the rules.

What does that mean, in a practical sense?

My main Facebook “page” — what businesses are encouraged to create on Facebook so they can collect followers who “Like” the page to see more from that business — currently has well over 26,000 followers. Not bad! My followers there love the funny memes I post: I get terrific “engagement” (as Facebook puts it) with my posts there. So let’s go with the kinds of numbers I see on this exact post type: a recent funny meme (as opposed to, say, a link to something I’m selling that would naturally have much lower engagement). On business pages, the owner can see what those numbers are.

I scrolled back several days (since presumably the engagement period has passed) to one of those memes. It was identified previously by Facebook as an “engaging” post (above average in reader attention), and that flag is now gone, since it’s old enough that the engagement is over. As of now it has 221 Likes (and other “reactions”), 72 Shares, and 12 Comments (which doesn’t count reply comments). Not great (a viral meme), and not bad (a dud post).

The maximum potential audience for this is my 26,000 followers, plus the views via those 72 Shares. The average Facebook user has (according to several sources) 338 friends, for a total of a potential Share audience of 24,336 people, or a grand total potential audience of at least 50,000 people. Sweet! (Well, plus an unknown number of potential impressions from the Likes: Facebook will “randomly” show you a post a friend of yours Likes.)

What was the actual “reach” of this specific meme — the number of people who had it on their screen, and maybe looked at it? A grand total of 5,539 people who maybe looked at it. Facebook didn’t show it to even a third of my own audience who said they Liked the page and presumably wanted to see what I had posted there. A little over 10 percent had it on their screen for at least a fraction of a second — nowhere near the potential total.

And that’s for something funny that “engaged” people (according to Facebook): something that naturally leads to Likes and comments. And a much smaller number than that actually did anything at all with it, such as clicking Like or making a comment.

Perhaps a Better Example

Let’s talk about another one where I wanted some action taken: a click on a link. I just sold my joke site so I could put more time into Emailified, and here are some stats on a recent joke link after the engagement period was over: it got 80 Likes, 14 Comments, and 30 Shares. Potential total audience: my 26,000 plus 30×338=10,140 Share audience. Out of those 36,000 people, Facebook actually showed it to 7,280 people, or about 20 percent — and that’s considered a terrific uptake!

Yet the real business metric is the action I desired: a link click. How many of those 7,280 folks clicked to go to the web site to see the joke? According to Facebook (and again, they’ll show this to page owners): 662 people. That’s also considered a pretty good number. But do the math: it’s only nine percent of those who actually had the posting on their screen for some length or time, just 2.5 percent of the number of folks who Liked my page because they wanted to see what I posted there, and only 1.8 percent of the potential total audience.

And that’s for something free that people value: the promise of a funny joke! I wasn’t even trying to sell them something! Then, the numbers would be much lower still.

Pay to Play: It’s Not Really Free

Of course, Facebook is happy to show that post to more people: all I have to do is pay them money. Clicking the “Boost Post” link on that joke post, they suggest that I spend $40 to show that one specific post to an estimated 1,800 to 4,800 more people — people who already Like my page and indicated they want to see its posts!

That’s $40 so maybe I could get nine percent of them to click a link for some free entertainment. The best case scenario is nine percent of 4,800, or 432 more clicks, at just over 9 cents/click. That best case scenario is pretty unlikely, don’t you think?

As low as these numbers are, they could go away overnight if Facebook chose to cut me off — if I did something they didn’t like, or even if they just thought I did something that they didn’t like. Or they simply chose to change the way that they show what you’ve posted on their site, to their members. I don’t own the “real estate” so I have no real grounds on which to complain. It’s not my business.

So maybe you’re starting to see why I like having my own customer list and not depend on social media to communicate with my customers. I certainly don’t have the ability to contact any of those folks outside of Facebook: they’re not my customers; since my name isn’t Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook is not my business.

Again: If you don’t own the customer list, you don’t own the business.

Now, it’s entirely possible that you could do something wrong and violate the rules of an Email Service Provider and be told to take your business elsewhere. Since you own the list, you indeed can take your list — your business — elsewhere! You can still contact your customers. You still own your business. And that’s the huge, huge difference between building your business on someone else’s real estate and building it on your own.

See the difference?

But Wait, Randy! You Just Said….

I said it’s nuts to build your business on social media, but I also said I have a “page” there with 26,000 followers. Isn’t that me building my business there?

Not at all. I’m not building a business on Facebook, I’m using it for lead generation. I post funny stuff there because I enjoy it, but what I’m also doing for business purposes is connecting with people who like the kinds of things I post. Why? Because most of those fun posts have my brand and URL included. I’m getting some brand recognition from that, and it’s nice, but I also will include out-and-out ads among my posts there. Not ads in the sense that I pay Facebook to show them, they’re also free posts, such as this one:

When you include a URL in a caption on Facebook, it automatically becomes a clickable link.

People engage with this sort of image just like they’re engaging with other things I post there. Of course, it’s still subject to the if-you’re-lucky-10 percent-will-see-it scenario, but some portion will Like it, Share it, and Comment on it — and the more they do so, the more people Facebook will show it to, just like any other post.

When I post things like this, I include a link to the site in the caption with an explicit invitation to come see what I have to offer, so those who like what they see can click through to my site and, here’s the key, subscribe to my list. Another way to put that: become my customer. And that’s where they move part of their attention from Facebook’s business to my business: I’m building my business on my own real estate. I’ve used Facebook to bring new subscribers (customers) to my business, and I can connect with them from there on without Facebook being in the middle. And that is the value of being able to post on Facebook “for free” (no money, just your time): no-cost leadgen.

Doesn’t that sound like a more rational way to build a business?

12 thoughts on ““I Don’t Need a Mailing List: I Use Social Media””

  1. I agree and that definitely needed to be said.

    However, if you’re small fry (<12000 emails/mo), you can be on MailChimp's forever free program, so you can get the benefits of an email-service-provider without the cost (at least at first!).

    I'm new at this, but I'm seeing how it works with them for now…

    • 12,000/mo (or even /wk) wouldn’t be anywhere near enough for me, but the tradeoff is having advertising/branding for someone else on your mails, which I wouldn’t want either. However, it is certainly a good solution for some. I’ll be delving into Mailchimp later.

  2. Imho this is a real danger for start-ups, even when they tend to go lean, they might pay some SEO firm to do content delivery, when that fails to produce results because of what you mentioned above (limitations on reach of content), one might argue that content was delivered, just didn’t reach appropriate audience.

    I myself recently followed a lean startup programme, and the general message is go facebook, go twitter, go linkedin like it is still 10 years ago, when conversion on google was still worthwhile.

    Now, storytelling seems to be the next big thing, Gary Vanyerchuck does some that even his hello’s seem to get more followers than retweets.

    How would content building and getting people slightly interested work when only using mailings?

    • Well, getting folks “slightly” interested isn’t the goal, of course: providing real value so they want more is the goal. If you aim for “slight” interest, then you’ll lose since others are providing more value, and your audience will go there instead.

  3. I don’t understand this part of the article above (maybe I missed something): “Facebook didn’t show it to even a third of my own audience who said they Liked the page… A little over 10 percent had it on their screen for at least a fraction of a second.”

    Does this mean that if my business makes a post today, it literally won’t show up on my customer’s news feed AT ALL (people who LIKE the page) by the end of the day? Is this common knowledge? I didn’t know about this and don’t understand why this happens.

    • I don’t know the current exact figure, but it will show up in the news feeds of 5-10 percent of the people who “Like” your business page, and indeed won’t show up “at all” for the rest. It’s reasonably common knowledge, and it happens because Facebook wants to make a lot of money to justify its stock price. I both understand this (it has to make money somehow), and it irritates the hell out of me because they spent so much time encouraging us to promote ourselves on Facebook, and there’s no quid pro quo for doing that work to build their business.

      You can pay to show it to more of your audience, of course, and you can pay quite a bit, but you’re very unlikely to get to 100 percent.

  4. Good article Randy. I read Facebook postings on my tablet, my phone and my desktop PC. Each platform has a different notion of what my “Top Stories” are. And sometimes that “Top Story” might be a post from several months ago because one of the friends I follow just commented on it. How is an entrepreneur supposed to have their business posts seen if Facebook has such quirky algorithms?

    I used to get regular postings from one company I follow, now I don’t. I just checked and I still “Like” their page and they still make regular postings. However, I do get all of their customer e-mailings.

    • Pretty much, your comment is a summary of the article: “How is an entrepreneur supposed to have their business posts seen if Facebook has such quirky algorithms?” By paying them $20 … $40 … $80 per post! Or, as you suggest, switch to email — though that means you need to set up a list and get to work on getting your customers’ email addresses.

    • RSS feeds are a different animal completely, and do not use email at all so no, indeed there won’t be an email address shown.

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