Understanding ‘Real People’ – Are You Creating Value?

‘…people can and will carve out the time for social media IF they see a reason to.’

There is a prevailing thought among pundits that ‘real people’ don’t have time for social media, which, if true, has major implications for anyone behind a social web startup wanting to build a monetizable audience

To understand ‘real people’ and their usage of social web properties, you have to remember that the assumption that everyone using social media wants to use it for some business-related purposes is simply not true (this can be anything from exposure, branding, connectivity, relationship building, customer service, reputation monitoring and management, and so on). It may appear that way to us because we’re a part of that hyper-connected, early-adopting, digerati that acts that way. If you have to ask questions like “how much does it cost?” (in terms of time investment in this case, but otherwise also monetary investment), then you are also one of those people. People who use social media for business-related purposes may not only use different services (or experiment with them) but are likely to use them with different frequency, and because they have different intentions (goals) they will participate differently too.

The average person – the ‘real person’ – however, is not bound by any mandatory minimum requirements, platforms, sites/services, methodologies of participation, and so on. As is often said, there are no conditions to participation (for these people) apart from basic rules etiquette. when ‘real people’ participate in social media, they do so because they want to, not because they feel obliged to or have to because of their job. They pick a handful of sites they enjoy and use the sites as often or as infrequently as suits their lifestyle. These users aren’t bound by requirements punditsare (actively monitoring, participating, and writing about the latest releases as well as the changes to popular platforms), or businesses are (again, certain minimum time and monetary commitment, various different platforms to understand and leverage, participation, and so on).

In fact just by creating a ‘real person’ scale we perpetuate the artificial requirements and classifications for users. Organic and holistic social media participation has no such requirements or categories.


To get an idea of what ‘real people’ think of social media, I did a non-scientific poll of 12 of my closest friends. Half of them are college students (in their third or fourth year of study) and the other half are people I graduated with and have full-time (9-5) jobs. They are nowhere near as active or proficient when it comes to participating on the social web, and are largely uninterested in the blogs I read, the communities I participate in, and the trends I monitor. Needless to say, they are ‘real people’. When asked why they don’t use more social media sites/services and use them more often (most of them participate on just one service, Facebook) the answer, was unanimously that they don’t feel the need to (i.e. participating wouldn’t give them much of value). When asked if it had anything to do with time commitments, they unanimously said that if they saw value in something, they would re-prioritize, but they don’t so they do other things instead.

In fact, almost all of them subscribe to and read my Twitter feed (but either don’t have accounts or have inactive accounts), and read stories from the Digg front page (but don’t submit, vote, or comment). In fact, one of my friends loves StumbleUpon and uses it regularly to find interesting content, but he only uses the ‘I like it’ and ‘no more like this’ buttons, and is completely uninterested in the community aspect of the toolbar or the ‘send to’ sharing feature. I’m sure a more general survey will find the results conforming to the Pareto Principle.

The more interesting conversation as you can see is not whether ‘real’ people do or don’t have time for social media, rather, what value social media provides for ‘real’ people and how can we increase that value to get them to participate more? The value these services can create for them will determine if they will adopt a service, what services they will adopt, and how frequently they will participate, and it’s at the point of value creation [pdf] that the conversation becomes interesting.

Additional point of interest:

there are two types of social media use: business use and leisure use. business use competes with traditional marketing (branding, pr, reputation management, e-commerce, content delivery, etc) and leisure use competes with traditional entertainment activities like watching tv, reading a book, going out for dinner, hanging out with friends, and so on. To go back to the time issue people don’t reject social media because they don’t have time, they reject it because it doesn’t create enough value for them to rank high on their list of priorities to warrant a lot of their time.

note: I use ‘real people’ only to maintain consistency in language. I think thought leaders, businesses, or any one else for that matter, (regardless of the frequency of their participation) is a real person. Unless of course they are actually a bot.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding ‘Real People’ – Are You Creating Value?

  1. Brett "From Tibet" Borders

    Great post! I can understand how businesses are scared of social media not returning enough value (when investing in social marketing), and also taking up too much time (when they think about their worker bees participating during company hours).

    There is a side of social media that can be very time intensive and vapid, and of course a very valuable and life-enriching part of it, too.

    I would like to see social media evolve and create tangible social and cultural value for people… open opportunities, encourage healthy avenues of expression, break down social hang-ups… without sucking up all of our time and degrading the real social quality of life.

  2. Svetlana Gladkova

    Excellent post Muhammad, I’ve been thinking about exactly the same for some time now. People usually find time when it comes to something they want to have in their lives – be it for business or for entertainment. And this is very in line with the latest Tim O’Reilly’s call for useful web, I think: when we build enough of useful services, people will see the value and use them. But if we continue to produce things mainly intended for early adopters, real people will stick to Facebook – and it will be quite understandable.


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