• Brand building hinges on understanding and respecting your audience
  • Too often, marketing leaders inundate audiences with a barrage of messages — many irrelevant or just plain annoying
  • New research suggests this causes unintended negative consequences

Economists have the useful concept of elastic and inelastic markets. In elastic markets, demand changes when price or product performance changes — if price goes up, demand goes down. Most markets are elastic, but a small number are inelastic and immune to changes in price and other variables. Medicines are a good example of a relatively inelastic market; the demand for insulin and similar drugs remains fairly constant, despite changes in price.

man on laptop social media icons

In marketing, we often behave as if we’re in an inelastic market when we think about audiences. We believe that if an audience responds well to one specific message, then they’ll respond even better to 20 similar messages. We arrogantly assume that audiences have a limitless interest in what we have to say — a fallacy that has resulted in most audiences drowning in brand messages. We see this in the data: In the early 1970s, the average American was exposed to about 500 brand messages every day; this has risen to more than 6,000, fueled in large part by the rise of digital marketing.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in social media. I was reminded of this when I recently examined data that described the social media activities for a group of about 70 B2B companies over a full year. The companies spanned different industries and markets, and their level of social media activity varied a lot. Some were very active across social media, and others were more muted. I examined the number of social media messages they shared on branded social networks and tried to correlate this with the amount of engagement these messages received. I did this by looking at the frequency of messages shared across Twitter (the number of tweets per week, averaged over a year), and correlated this with the average number of retweets or likes they received. The results were interesting: There was a small but significant negative correlation between the frequency of messages and the level of engagement. In other words, the more messages a brand sent out, the less response it got.

Social media obeys the rule of diminishing returns, and behaves like an elastic market. More is not better — it’s worse. Most activities in marketing follow this pattern. Generally, marketing professionals take this onboard and adjust their tactics accordingly. For example, demand marketing professionals understand the concept of contact database list fatigue and know that if they overuse a database of contacts they’ll see a decline in responsiveness and a spike in unsubscribes.

Brand and communications professionals need to act in the same way. There’s a common misconception that social media is “free,” and this way of thinking can lead to organizations saturating their social networks with more and more messages. In reality, social media is a resource-intensive activity that requires investments in people, technology and especially content. The data makes it clear: Focus on the quality of the interactions with your audiences, not on the quantity. It pays.