To Follow or Unfollow? That is the question

On October 17, 2012, AOL’s most trusted digital prophet David Shing, announced his predictions for 2013 and beyond. This intelligent man had digital natives and brand owners on the edge of their seats as he was sharing trends that would define their businesses and lives in the year and years to come. Shing presented these findings at the 2012 Web Summit conference which was hosted in Dublin, Ireland. This is a landmark event in the digital stratosphere as its outcomes are the blueprint of the future. In a few minutes, the scruffy haired digital soothsayer laid down the future and set the ball rolling for digi-philes. One trend from his address – whose manifestation we are slowly seeing is the unfollowing trend – caught my attention.

David Shing. AOL's Digital Prophet. Image courtesy of:

David Shing. AOL’s Digital Prophet.
Image courtesy of:

This is a rather ironic trend in a highly webbed world where connectedness has become second nature. And this trend has nothing to do with the hashtag #unfollowing from February 2009 on Twitter that got some spoilt twitter celebrities unfollowing their followers by the masses. That was a trifle. This is much bigger than that. This has everything to do with what quality information means for the consumer and has even bigger implications for brands and businesses out there. So what did Singh really refer to when he said unfollowing will be a trend?

Most business to consumer brands have jumped on the bandwagon of social media and social interaction has grown to be one of their important consumer touchpoints. This has been good for brands and for the consumers as it means brands are more accountable as this sphere calls for a sincerity that traditional media has not been able to afford engagement. However, this also means that there has been a growth in the quantity of information sources out there, all targeted at the consumer. Not only from brands but from other consumers who have become de-facto publishers through blogging, media sharing, forums and discussions. So the average consumer finds themselves overwhelmed by information – so much to choose from and so little time.

There is an estimated average of 7 million DVDs worth of information used hourly on the internet. If it’s a 4.7GB DVD that Mashable meant, that would be 30.8 million GB/ 29.4 PB per hour (1 PB/ Peta Byte – 1 000 TB/ Tera Bytes). An average human brain has the memory capacity of 2.5 PB in one a lifetime. So this swamped consumer then, according to Shing, in 2013 and beyond will decide to stick to those source of information she/ he really likes and prunes those he can do without. She/ He unfollows and unfriends.
It’s an old age concept really. Culling. It has been there in agriculture for years and years. When a farmer’s herd grows to be much larger than her/ his farm’s carrying capacity, she/ he culls the herd. Slaughters a chunk of the herd to remain with a manageable productive size. When a rose bush grows and grows and becomes, well, a little too bushy, the horticulturalist prunes it. When a consumer follows too many profiles, or likes too many pages, or subscribes to too many blogs, her/ his timelines overflow with content and become, clogged, and there is need for a little trimming. Cue in the unfollow trend.

Consumers will unfollow in order to regain value from the platforms that they joined and spend their precious time on. It’s a ‘back to basics’ movement, where consumers will keep following only the personalities who have stayed true to who they are and therefore provide the kind of content their consumers cannot do without. It’s a kind of differentiation.

Twitter has turned most of us into numbers whores, we all get a kick out of a new follower although for some who are in their thousands of followers they have all become rather nonchalant about it. For the majority of us who are excited about the addition to our virtual families, this would come as a bit of a worry: I imagine for brands especially, and the de-facto publishers. But this is not personal, this is an opportunity to hone in on target tribes and maximise on retaining them with specific content. This is the beginning of the attention-economy, where brands that seek to remain relevant will effort to reward consumers’ attention with quality engagement. It is an answer to the quality-quantity dilemma, trimming down quantity to maximise quality engagement from a real following. The one-size-fits-all formula is wanting when it comes to digital natives. The unfollow trend will get brands and content curators to stick to specific formulae that guarantee true following.

The unfollow trend also speaks to the growth of tribes. Interest based grouping as a means of community building for consumers and market segmentation for brands. People are sticking more and more to what they like, to feed their passions and associate with their interests. No longer should brands seek to group people according to what they earn, but rather according to what they like. Income is a secondary variable when segmenting one’s market, interest is a first.

So should your numbers get lower, fret a little, not too much, and concentrate more on creating the kind of content that honestly communicates your brand identity. And one last thing, make sure that your content is so kick ass that your following cannot do without it!