The Numbers Gap: How Many Social Media Members Are Really Active?

Posted by Michael Neubarth
Michael Neubarth
Michael Neubarth is Vice President of Marketing for Comparz.com and founder and Director of eMatrix Media Comm...
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on Thursday, 16 February 2012 in Comparz Blog


The actual numbers of active users of social media sites are important to businesses that are considering advertising on those sites. You want to reach an audience of real prospects who are receptive to your products.

However, while the overall number of people who establish an account on services like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ may be high, many of those members rarely or never use the services, and many accounts are duplicates or fakes.

In “The Hollow Emptiness in Social Media NumbersMost Accounts Are Fake or Empty,” Tom Foremski estimates that the number of active users could be as small as one-third, and that about one-half of user accounts could be phony or blank.

As Foremski writes, “With the possibility that nearly 50% of social network users could be fake or empty user accounts — this is a massive issue for social media marketing.”

The upshot of this for businesses is that their advertising will reach a smaller audience of potential customers. “In social media,” says Foremski, “50% of your marketing could be wasted trying to reach fake or empty profile users.”

Inactive users, empty accounts, and phony users are called ciphers, ghosts, and shadow members.

Exactly how many members are inactive is unknown, but the numbers are large, according to studies. For Twitter, for example, an RJ Metrics study found that only about 17% of Twitter users were active. The number of Google+ active users has been similarly pegged at from 17% to 30%.

Kevin Kelly in "The Ciphers of Social Media" writes that, “Most of the half million people following me on Google+ are ciphers. They have signed up, but have not made a single public post, or posted their own image or a profile, or made a comment. They aren't home.”

Kelly cites a study by two Popular Mechanics writers who hand-checked 1,000 of their Twitter followers and found that only 25% were real and that 49% were fake or spam.

Similar doubt has been cast on Facebook’s active user numbers. In its IPO filing, Facebook touts its overall membership as 845 million “monthly active users” and 483 million “daily active users.”

However, writes Andrew Ross Sorkin in The New York Times, “If it is hard to believe that so many people are clicking on facebook.com every day, that’s because well, they aren’t, exactly. Those eye-popping numbers should have an asterisk next to them.”

Sorkin cites Barry Ritholz, who points out that in Facebook’s IPO filing it labels users as active when they merely click on a “Like” icon from an external site and never actually visit Facebook.

As Ritholtz notes in assessing the impact of these tangential users on Facebook’s monetization capability, “If they click a ‘like’ button but do not go to Facebook that day, they cannot be marketed to, they do not see any advertising, they cannot be sold any goods or services.”

This, says Ritholz, “helps to explain why Facebook’s annual revenue per user is so low.”

In “Why Facebook’s Numbers Are Inflated,” Kenneth Lim says the large numbers of users touted by Facebook “are absolutely not unique” and points to the widespread practice of social gaming on Facebook as causing users to create large numbers of duplicate accounts.

Lim cites All Facebook statistics that show that 53% of Facebook users play games and that 50% of Facebook log-ins are specifically to play games.

Ultimately, says Lim, “the low barrier for playing social games renders a portion of the player base unmarketable.”

Subtract the fake accounts, phony likes, inactive users, duplicate accounts, and unmarketable teens, and you have seriously decreased the potential advertising population on Facebook.

This may be why Facebook is so aggressively foisting advertising on its members in the form of Sponsored Stories and scrolling Timelines. It also may explain why Facebook is so actively selling user data to third parties to boost its revenues.

As Tom Foremski writes, “Clearly, there is a lot more research to be done but equally clear is the fact that you can’t trust —by a truly massive margin — the numbers for things such as “likes” of a corporate Facebook page; followers of a corporate Twitter account; numbers of views of a “viral” video, etc.”

Similarly, as Andrew Ross Sorkin writes, “If large numbers of accounts are fake, and equally large numbers have no profile information, it means that there is a far less commercial value in social media networks than total numbers would suggest.”

Michael Neubarth is Vice President of Marketing for Comparz.com and founder and Director of eMatrix Media Communications. Michael has a comprehensive marketing, communications, PR, analytical, and editorial background, including strategic marketing, communications, and market intelligence roles at IBM, FatWire Software, and Brodeur Worldwide, and as an analyst at Meta Group covering advanced technologies. His experience includes roles as editor-in-chief of Internet World, NetGuide, and Windows magazines, and expert contributor to CIOzone.com. Michael is a well-known writer on information technology, digital marketing, and social media issues, and his articles and blogs are cited widely online.

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