Can the Onion Theory bring social media lurkers into the light?

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social media lurkers

By Brooke Ballard, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Can deeper personal disclosure seduce silent social media lurkers into joining our conversation?

Mark Schaefer and I have been on a seemingly endless quest to understand dark social media, gray social media, and the people who may love your company but stay in the shadows.

But what if we’re focusing on the medium and not the message? If we can’t measure social media lurkers, maybe the content can draw them in.

As Brian Solis famously said:

Social media is about sociology not technology.

BINGO.

The Onion Theory

Once you’re over the humorous theory name, let’s talk about how it could be used to fish for lurkers.

I wrote my first post for {grow} on the Onion Theory, and my undergraduate thesis work on how it applies to using psychographics in social media marketing.

The theory has four fundamental assumptions about the way we form relationships:

  1. They move from non-intimate to intimate (unknowns to lurkers and possibly to community members)
  2. Development is generally systematic and predictable (content is generally the catalyst for ignition)
  3. Development includes de-penetration (slow deterioration of relationship) and dissolution (not every lurker will become a community member, not every community member will become a customer)
  4. Self-disclosure (revealing information about yourself to others) is at the core of relationship development (emotional marketing is needed to make a connection)

Based on those assumptions, are we doing enough with our content to reveal information about ourselves … whether an author or a brand?

The psychology behind it says that by disclosing information about yourself to your community, you will activate reciprocity with some of your members, thus creating a relationship and trust.

Other important online elements follow, like authority, influence, and hopefully two-way conversation.

Is it possible that deeper disclosures can seduce the silent segments into joining our known audience?

The Onion Theory: Bringing Lurkers To The Light?

If we think about the levels in which we’re engaging our audiences with content, I think we need to focus more on the disclosures that content provides.

To me this is part of the key (psychology/sociology) for converting lurkers into people who engage in two-way social.

It’s my case for using more emotional marketing and not getting mired in tracking metrics or an IP address (but yeah, I want that too!).

Thinking about the brands you choose to interact with, look at the levels of the Onion Theory and decide where they fall …

Level One

Cliché. Normal. Meh. What many companies and brands deem “appropriate” content. However, with the outbreak of mundane content (content shock) this level will hardly beckon silent audiences from the shadows.

Level Two

I’d like to call this “purgatory” because I feel like this is where so many of us get stuck. We’ve got those casual relationships; the readers who may be reading every week, but never showing themselves. While we (the brand) are moderately showing who we are, we aren’t really going “there” with true transparency. We also aren’t doing enough to spark lurkers to weigh in.

Level Three 

These are the truly authentic brands. Chick-fil-A immediately comes to mind. They aren’t scared to show how they feel about religion, even at the cost of criticism (believe it or not, sales skyrocketed after the same-sex marriage controversy). Very few brands can get here based on the anxiety of being disliked for their disclosures, being “too emotional” or going too far.

Level Four

There is an even exchange of psychographics — feelings, opinions, beliefs, attitudes — from both audience and brand. Two-way conversation has emerged. I guess we would consider this marketing “heaven” since two-way conversation and sharing denotes a measurable impact. I saw the Special Olympics engage in this level on their Facebook page back in 2010/2011 when they asked their fans how they felt about the “r” word. The response was riveting.

Think about it. As someone involved with the Special Olympics, that kind of question would move me to respond. And people did.

They shared every feeling imaginable on the subject, and then Special Olympics Page shared their thoughts back.

Onion Theory

[Image source: WikiCommons]

So? What level do the brands you choose to engage with function on?

I’m sure there are very few who engage you with personal or core content (and if there are, please let me know about them in the comments section!).

Tell the truth. Where does your marketing sit?

Sociology Or Technology?

I realize there’s risk of taking things too far. We’re all so scared of getting beaten down by making one off-color remark.

But look at TV. We’ve moved away from cliché programming to networks riddled with reality TV.

I find it interesting that reality TV was initially created a way for networks to combat the rising costs of producing a show.

While PBS and Discovery have giant budgets dedicated to continuing to engineer educational shows, other, smaller networks had to capture viewers with something they could connect with on a deeper level.

It’s similar to combatting content shock.

While the big companies have deep pockets and can produce heavy-hitting educational content that’s rising to the top of search engines, perhaps the small or middle-market brands need to create “reality” content, which is cheaper and easier to produce, and allows lurkers to connect on a deeper level.

It may be that by moving beyond Levels One & Two, we can coax our silent audiences into conversation and participation.

And then, POOF!, they’re measurable. Definable. Identifiable.

Is that the answer?

I don’t know. I’m asking you.

Should we be focused on the metrics that show us who is silent, or working to give the quiet voices a platform for being heard? Let me know in the comments section below!

See you in the social sphere!

Brooke Ballard for {grow}Brooke Ballard is an in-the-trenches digital marketer & owner at B Squared Media, blossoming blogger, and co-host of @ReadySetPodcast. Her mantra is “Think Conversation, Not Campaign” so be sure to give her a shout on Twitter.

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