What Is The Viewers Distortion Syndrome as It Applies To Social Media

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How We Overestimate the Reach and Influence of Social Media Tools

The “Viewers Distortion Syndrome” is a term developed by Robert Bacal to describe the situation where the number of viewers, or communication recipients is drastically OVER-ESTIMATED.

It works like this. Let’s say you own a website and you count how many unique people view your page(s) and how many pages they view. That’s the most common (yet superficial method) of looking at the “reach” or number of people, your website is able to influence. This is an important issue, particularly for business reasons (but also may apply to anything where you wish your website to influence people) because clearly, if the visitors aren’t actually reading what you have on your site, it can’t really influence them.

If you look only at page views, or unique visitors, it doesn’t tell you anything about influence. Since the number of TRUE readers (those you can influence) is always going to be less than total people, if you only consider superficial traffic measures, you will always overestimate the effectiveness of your website. So, let’s compare two websites. Last year one million people visited your website. On my website, only half that (500,000 visited). If you fall prey to the viewer distortion syndrome, you’d conclude that you site is more useful/valuable/effective than mine.

But what about if people spend 15 minutes per visit on my site and read everything, and people only spend 20 seconds on your site and read almost nothing? Which is the more valuable?

The viewer distortion syndrome inflates value in the situations where superficial numbers are used. It can easily be counteracted by using better metrics. In this case, it would help to look at time spent on site. Mind you it doesn’t tell you whether they are reading or processing what’s on the site, but it’s better.

Now, Apply To Social Media

Doubtless you have heard of the millions of people signed up for particular social media platforms such as Twitter, or Facebook. The numbers of absolutely impressive and based on the numbers, many people in business have invested in having a presence on these platforms. After all, what business will pass up the chance to reach 10’s of millions of people free of charge?

Alas, though, the actual influence/reach of both Facebook and Twitter are vastly overestimated by virtue of the viewer distortion syndrome. In fact, the actual reach of anyone new to Twitter (just as an example) is just about ZERO. Right, the day the Twitter account is opened, you can tweet to your heart’s content, and reach NOBODY.

But the potential seems endless. It’s not. This doesn’t just apply to new accounts. It also applies to older ones. The attrition rate of people on many social media platforms (people who join, are counted, but never actually read or use the platform) is huge. Even if, for example a company has 100,000 followers, or fans, or friends, the number of people it can actually reach is much smaller, and among those, the number of people reading and interested in smaller yet again.

Hence, the illusion of viewership/readership and influence. It’s a pandemic in the industry.

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