Studying the impact of innovation on business and society

The Difference Between Friends, Fans and Followers

With every day that passes, brand managers are learning the value of presence in social networks. The extent to which new media permeates a company’s fabric depends on where in the world the company is based, as well as the prevailing culture of its organization. What’s clear however, is that brands are paying attention.

Social media and our understanding of its promise are raw. I’ve always believed that media and ensuing behavior are evolving faster than our ability to master it. As such, it relegates us to an important, not menial role of student versus expert.

It starts with how we visualize the opportunity that lies before us in new media. Here we are, years after some of the earliest, successful experimentation with brands in networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. And yet, many of us still can’t see beyond the idea of trying to reach “an audience” of existing and potential consumers. While in general, there’s nothing wrong with earning an audience. The principle of my statement though, is rooted in the idea that an audience is comprised of people, people who in their own way, are each coming to the relationship with their own personal agenda. As such, we tend to view connections made in social networks quite literally as the 3F’s: friends, fans and followers. With such a narrow view of who we’re trying to reach and why, we limit our effect and value.

There is no one audience. It’s an audience of audiences with audiences and within each are varying roles of the social consumer.

At any one moment, social consumers are

– Influencers

– Decision Makers

– Peers

– Advisers

– Idea Generators

– Adversaries

– Advocates

– Customers

If we are designing our engagement strategies and social presences around the varying, yet important roles of the social consumer, we are missing our true opportunities to cultivate more meaningful communities online and in the real world.

The future of business is tied to how the 3F’s convert into the 4A’s, action, advisor, affinity, and advocacy, regardless of network.

It is our responsibility to assume the role of digital anthropologist and sociologist to understand the needs and wants of people within each network and to design programs around these discoveries. Everything begins with research and understanding. Instead however, brands are quick to race to networks with a “ready, fire, aim” approach without having the answers to why. And then we wonder why it’s so difficult to measure ROI. We need to have a mission and purpose that reaches the right people in the right way with desired outcomes.

ExactTarget recently published a study that showed us, at the top level, the differences between the 3F’s. In its report, “Subscribers, Fans and Followers,” ExactTarget studied the unique attributes of consumers using email, Facebook, and Twitter as well as their influence on customer loyalty.

The first question is one that many companies often ask, but is rarely answered. Are internet users more likely to purchase from a brand after becoming a subscriber, fan or follower?

In the U.S., the results are as follows…

On Twitter, 37% said yes, 31% were indifferent and 32% said that it was unlikely.


On Facebook, at least as of the study date, which is April 2010, the numbers aren’t as promising as Twitter. Here, only 17% agreed, 34% were on the fence, and a staggering 49% disagreed.


In opt-in email campaigns, the numbers were better than Facebook. 27% of email subscribers said that they would make a purchase, 41% stated a neutral position, and 32% would not.

Earlier in the year, I wrote about why consumers connect with brands on social networks. Many stated that they desired access to exclusive content as well as special offers and discounts. That tells us that we have to, in part, address those wants. According to this research, we can see that promotional activity on Twitter may be a good place to start. Here Followers may prove of greater value than Fans or Likes, as those who would make a purchase because of the brand connection are twice as likely to do so through Twitter than Facebook.

ExactTarget then asked an equally important question. Would you recommend a brand or product after connecting with the company on Twitter, Facebook, or through opt-in email?

The Twitter lines were divided in thirds. 33% said yes, they would act as an advocate on behalf of the brand. 35% were unsure. And, 31% said that they were unlikely to do so.

This time, the numbers were a bit better for Facebook. 21% would recommend a company after “Liking” them. 32% stated that they did not lean either way. 47% however, said that they don’t “like” the idea of making the referral.

Email, which, by the way, is far from dead, outperforms Facebook. 24% would make a referral. 40% were unmoved. 36% claimed that email did not inspire them to make the referral.

The numbers are telling and whether we agree or not, they inspire analysis and more importantly, creativity. The population in Twitter compared to Facebook and also email is small.  According to ExactTarget, only 3% of US internet users follow brands on Twitter. Imagine what happens when that number increases and brands also meet this growth with much more sophisticated programming and engagement strategies. ExactTarget also noted something very important. Users on Twitter are more likely to be influencers…thus ideal targets for advocacy.

To help, Twitter just revamped, a site that provides the basics on how businesses can use Twitter effectively. The new site provides businesses with information about Twitter features and tools as well as about the company’s new Promoted Products – Promoted Trends, Promoted Accounts, and Promoted Tweets.

The lesson in all of this is that assumptions are made about how well businesses are using social presences to activate social consumers. Once we realize that social consumers require information, direction, and incentives uniquely, connecting with them will have the purpose necessary to steer experiences and outcomes.  Everything starts with getting to know your social consumers.

This is click to action…converts the 3F’s to the 4A’s!

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68 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The Difference Between Friends, Fans and Followers”

  1. Brian, great article, but bad data representation! Wish you had used the same percentage scale on the x-axis for better comparison. I applaud the attempt to change the original illustration, however 🙂

    • briansolis says:

      Michael, thank you. Will keep that in mind for the next time. When I review the original reports, they ask that that we do not publish the original images…so, this is the system I use. 🙂

    • Good article – one more question regarding the graphs:
      The US stats for the first question seem to show different %s in the graphs for Facebook and Email than the text states.
      E.g. 41% of Email respondents giving a neutral answer according to the written text vs. somewhere around 32% on the graph. Which are the correct numbers?

      Personally, I always prefer non-3D graphs, as the “paralax” effect makes it hard to tell whether the bar reaches over a gridline or not.


  2. Brian, great article, but bad data representation! Wish you had used the same percentage scale on the x-axis for better comparison. I applaud the attempt to change the original illustration, however 🙂

  3. janlgordon says:

    I really liked this post, especially when you said we must be able to differentiate between fans, followers and friends and connect with them accordingly. I am glad that I know ROI is not about dollars in this instance, it’s about where you are in all of this chaos, what part you want to play, who you want to play with, what your unique offering is and how you engage and connect with your target audience. I am constantly refining my focus and this really helped me to crystalize some things that were still a bit fuzzy. I thank you for providing some guidance and information along with good research as always. I’m going to read this again and retweet it to my followers. Thanks Brian!

  4. says:

    Superb article. Interesting stats about FB and Twitter – I guess FB is more friend-oriented and therefore less a time we want to be thinking about ads and promos.

  5. This is great. I think it hits the nail on the head. This change of the audience is a challenge because all kind of web strategies must be rethink. One need to distinguish its goals and intentions on the different platforms. People have different needs, different personalities and therefore act differently in the web. Thanks for this!

  6. Anonymous says:

    WOW – What a great article about how consumers can change their roles depending as as marketers we must understand that social consumers tack action uniquely based on their own needs.

  7. Alok Kumar says:

    Will keep that in mind for the next time. When I review the original reports, they ask that that we do not publish the original images…so, this is the system I use. 🙂

  8. Alok Kumar says:

    Will keep that in mind for the next time. When I review the original reports, they ask that that we do not publish the original images…so, this is the system I use. 🙂

  9. Jeff Kryger says:

    You got the graphs mixed up for Facebook and E-mail. Either the graphs are labeled backwards, or you wrote about the wrong stats for each.

    • The labels on the email and Facebook charts were switched. The purchase intent chart labeled “email” is actually for Facebook and vice versa. The written commentary is accurate.

      Morgan Stewart, Primary Researcher and Author of the ExactTarget study

  10. “Everything begins with research and understanding.”

    I’m with you 100% on that. And the research never ends either.

  11. Leslie Cairns says:

    Thanks for this very well written and easy to understand article!

  12. Great insights into what different people are worth to you are social media followers and fans! Thank you.

  13. Mark Hawker says:

    I took my time over this one, Brian. My interpretation is based on first principles: a social network comprises of nodes and relationships. It appears to me that the terms “fan”, “follower” and “friend” that are afforded by social utilities are being used to denote relationship. I think this is incorrect. They are binary representations denoting the *existence* of relationship, but not the relationship itself. Should I follow a brand and they interact with me, then the relationship is strengthened. (For example, a strong relationship could be quantified by counting the number of conversations between a brand and consumer.) Should they ignore me, or fail to excite me as they shift through the roles of the social consumer, then the relationship is weakened (if not lost). I agree with you that each social utility affords a distinct way for brands to form a relationship with their (potential) consumers, but those relationships will evolve over time, space, and for each activity broadcasted. This is complex stuff, with multiple dimensions, so happy to be a part of exploring this further.

  14. Kfitzfake says:

    Just a couple friendly bits of constructive criticism to make these ideas even more useful: I would rethink your Four As a bit. Pick a single consistent grammatical category: all adjectives, all verbs, etc. instead of a jumble. Makes the model confusing and less memorable when you don’t. Explain why you chose these four concepts. You should also clearly explain how the social roles in the first diagram relate to what you’re trying to explain with your 4 As in the second.

    As for the responses to the survey, I would want to see details of how the questions are phrased before I take the results as definitive. But they are interesting, and deserve follow-up to see what’s driving the differences. For instance, does it depend on whether the F in question depends on being accepted (reciprocity) vs. being able to subscribe unilaterally, or only risking denial on a an opt out (being blocked) vs. opt in (acceptance of friend request required in advance)? Does the higher conversion rate for perceived likelihood of action stem from more selectivity up front in how many brands those on twitter follow in the first place? (because of potential to clog up user’s timelines)

  15. Brian, great article. Couple comments. At the end of the post, there was an Amazon link to your book. I clicked it, and it took me away from your blog. I had to navigate back to the post. It’d be useful if the Amazon link opened in a new window.
    Also the roles of the social consumer diagram is killer. I was not aware of the distinctions. It would be great if you have a more thorough definition of each. Maybe it’s in your book.

  16. Although brands want to figure out how to win online which is good….but in my view winning comes from discovering what the consumer needs are then advocating a solution that works….if this never happens a perfect online marketing strategy will never replace exceptional customer service. @live_alpharetta

  17. Hey Brian…since I haven’t seen the full ExactTarget research, can you shed any insights into the research methodology?

    My concern is that a marketer might draw a faulty conclusion based on the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. In other words, we can’t conclude (based on the info here) that following a brand causes a consumer to be more likely to purchase. The inverse is equally possible: That a consumer chooses to follow a brand because they’re likely to purchase from that brand (either a brand loyalist or a first-time buyer).

    Since I haven’t seen the full research, I’m hoping you could elaborate on this point. Thanks!

    Either way, I think your point about the nuances between the 3Fs or the 4As is significant. Brands that overlook these distinctions risk having an unsophisticated and underperforming approach to PR, marketing, customer service, product development, etc.

  18. Gibsongoff says:

    This whole social media thingy is still in it’s infancy. It’s constantly evolving, and next year at this time much of what we see today will of changed. People are finding their voices amongst all the noise.

    Your post brings great understanding to all of this. Thanks!

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