5 Dimensions of a Social Superuser

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Pew Research Center recently published an interesting study describing customer demographics of services such Uber and AirBNB, concluding that much of the “gig economy” is driven by superusers. For these services, the typical superuser was tech-savvy and relatively affluent (most businesses wish they could be so lucky to have these customers) – but the big takeaway for me was that there is a small concentration of users that drives a disproportionate amount of revenue to these businesses.

In statistics, the superuser model is referred to as a “power law distribution,” and it is (generally speaking) the distribution of time on site, engagement and conversion events relative to total audience for most digital platforms. A lot of statistical research has been done vetting this model for social platforms and other collaborative sites.

As an example, there are a lot of people that spend some portion of their time on Facebook every week. Most people spend a little bit of time there, but some people spend an unusually high amount of time there. These people have a tendency to do a disproportionate surplus of content creation, sharing, engagement and conversion events. These are superusers.

Online games such as Pokémon Go and Madden Online have a superuser-driven model, where a disproportionate population of users play with higher frequency and pay with higher frequency. Superusers subsidize the other users for most freemium games (thanks for that superusers!).

While there is novelty to noting that Uber or Pokémon Go are driven by superusers, very little is written or discussed anymore about this phenomenon as it relates to social media or content. Which is odd, since this is a key aspect of how communication and marketing professionals should be viewing the dynamics of these networks.

What I want to do in this post is to discuss a few considerations about superusers that are important when planning social and digital strategy.

1. Do superusers do what you want them to do?


Facebook is the dominant social network in terms of nearly every metric (except engagement, which is dominated by Facebook-property Instagram). It has been noted by multiple studies that their audience followed a power law distribution, and yet at the time of their IPO they weren’t making money (at least enough to satisfy their investors). Their solution: tweak their algorithm to display ads with higher frequency. Despite the superusers driving much of the conversation on the platform, it didn’t sufficiently meet their objectives.

Instagram is another good example: it has the highest engagement of any social network, but the majority of those engagements are “likes,” demonstrating very little about how a person engaged a post or the impact that it had for them. By design (which Facebook, Instagram and Twitter alter with algorithms), advertising and promotion on these platforms is a common tactic for communication and marketing professionals to get a tangible amount of scale and the appropriate type of interaction.

Just because there are superusers that engage your brand doesn’t mean that they will engage it in a meaningful way. And if a superuser is adversarial to your brand, even superfluous engagement may be damaging to a brand’s reputation.


2. Superusers are the 1%

The term “superuser” is sometimes used in the context of the 1 percent rule, a rough estimation that in networks allowing content creation (social networks, wikis, etc.) 90 percent of people are “lurkers,” 9 percent of people are engagers and 1 percent of people create new content. In this context the 1 percent content creators are known as “superusers.” This is a bit of a different power law distribution than the social superusers that we usually think of, but it is illustrative of another important consideration: scale.

While 1 percent (hopefully) is low when measuring the drivers of social engagement for your business, low single digits are fairly typical engagement statistics for social posts. In fact, with algorithm changes, organic conversion events on Facebook are regularly measured in fractions of 1 percent. To do anything tangible with this level of engagement and conversion, you need a massive amount of scale – and it helps to understand that content streams are engineered to restrict access to superusers.

The insight here is that there is a very small percentage of users who contribute disproportionately to the rest of the population, and social platforms may make them even more difficult to engage than they otherwise would have been. Objectives with these limits come with massive amounts of scale and/or virality, although only the former is consistent. Again, social platforms are trying to (not-so-subtly) nudge businesses to paid promotion and advertising.

3. The transition from superuser to supernova


A supernova is the final explosion before the death of a star. Its comparison to superusers is probably a little bit of a stretch, perhaps the blogging equivalent of Alanis Morrisette’s irony.

In any event, the point is that very little is known about the lifecycle of a social superuser (and that both have the prefix “super-“). Presumably, a user may get immersed in a platform and at some point suffer something analogous to “gamer’s fatigue,” reducing their use of the app.

Since so little is understood about when this happens, the big takeaway is to understand where and how we can reliably communicate with people. Generally, communication and marketing professionals recognize these platforms as email, SMS and (perhaps stretching a bit here) Facebook.

The big idea is to transition everyone to a more reliable communication platform because some platforms tend to give you such erratic access to your fans and followers. This is sound advice for all users but especially superusers, whose voice and attention is disproportionately amplified relative to the crowd.

Cision has really helpful tools in this regard as well as to unify social and email profiles (most CRM programs do this to some extent, though it’s a particular strength of Cision’s suite).

4. Check your assumptions

Twitter users

Anytime we’re planning at scale we have to input some assumptions, and superuser demographics are no different. For instance, you might want to target superusers with a specific criteria within a promotional campaign. When you’re making assumptions, it’s important to understand how rapidly demographics change on these platforms.

The chart above is an extreme example: Pew estimates year-over-year Twitter usage (as a proportion of the population) increased 9 percent among Hispanics in 2014, consistent with observed increases in broadband accessibility. And two-year-old data is the latest platform-specific data that they’ve published. Nearly 10 percent of Hispanic adults online began using Twitter in one year. ]

Imagine the demographic shifts that may happen with NFL and NBA streaming on Twitter this year, or live streaming events on Facebook, or Microsoft’s integration of LinkedIn, or any of many changing variables on social platforms.

5. Measurement enables adaptability


Superusers spend a disproportionate amount of time on the social platforms that we communicate with. Superusers have an amplified voice and interactions, and are largely a product of social scale.

However, we don’t know how long people stay superusers and we may have blind spots for new superusers because of the assumptions that we make relative to the changing demographics on social platforms. How can we harness this knowledge to make meaningful plans about strategy and outreach? Thoughtful measurement.

In a recent blog post, Shonali Burke discussed the newly introduced AMEC Integrated Evaluation Framework, an interactive tool to help vet metrics specific to your communication objectives. What I appreciate about this tool is that it streamlines a process but makes you do the most important work: specifically you need to identify the objective and outcomes that will determine success. You shouldn’t conclude to use cookie cutter metrics if you’ve done the work correctly.

When it comes to superusers and outreach to these individuals, it’s important to have a thoughtful plan in place and to have appropriate measurements to gauge your outreach success. And revisiting these metrics regularly is important, too – both from a demographic perspective and from a practical standpoint.


What I wanted to do in this post was to re-engage a conversation about social superusers. In quarterly reports we hear a lot about user growth and profitability, and discuss far less often the number of people who are driving key actions within these platforms. The creators, the sharers, the converts are more likely to be people who spend a disproportionately high amount of time using them. These are superusers. To paraphrase Joe Biden, they are a big deal.

Until Facebook or Twitter lets you segment by time-on-site (which will happen never), identifying and finding ways to outreach to these users may be a huge advantage to those who do it well. And to superusers everywhere: Godspeed you disproportionately important social networkers.

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Images via Pixabay: 1, 2, 3, 4

Tags : social media

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