Social media strategies: lessons from biology

on Dec 30 in biology, hints and tips, social media, strategy, tools, trends posted by

Thought of the Day, Dec 30, 2008

Seth Godin suggests a strategy of focusing only on one thing and being really big in that space. He advises against dabbling in a lot of different things, thereby diluting your time, talent and money, and ultimately your impact. For social marketers, this strategy creates a dilemma. What do you do if your target behavior (e.g., technology product reviews) is occurring in a variety of spaces? For example, a technology products company could invest a lot of time getting established on TechCrunch, only to find most prospective customers are looking for reviews on

No, you don’t want to carry on failing at things you do poorly, and yes, you do want to focus on the things you are good at, as Pamela Slim interprets Godin’s counsel (quote below). But the solution for a long-term strategy is just not that simple.

Social media is extraordinarily complex, like an ecosystem. That’s not surprising since it is comprised of human beings (spam bots excepted). So we can learn some lessons from biology here.

For that we need to delve into a bit of background, so bear with me a minute.

Biologists observe that there is a continuum of reproductive strategies in the living world. Some organisms put a lot of effort into raising a few offspring whereas others put less effort into each offspring but produce a great many. So it is a numbers game related to energy.

Of course, you have only so much energy. You can spend a lot of energy protecting and nurturing a few offspring (think teenagers). Humans have evolved this strategy, called K selection (for reasons related to mathematical modelling of populations). Others are whales and elephants.

Animals that have an r selection strategy generally produce a great many eggs or seeds, and put little effort into raising or protecting them. The cod fish, for example, produces millions of eggs, and lets them take their chances in the wide ocean. Many insects employ an r strategy.

So basically, the r-K strategy is producing a lot of small offspring and letting them take their chances, versus a few big offspring and nurturing them. Key to understanding here is that r strategies tend to be favored by natural selection in unstable environments, whereas K strategies are favored in stable environments.

How can this apply to social media?

There are literally hundreds of social media applications, how do we pick and choose? Do we choose just one and master that, as Seth Godin proposes? That is the equivalent of a K strategy. You are choosing to spend energy and time on one “offspring,” nurturing and protecting it.

But it’s not the only choice. You can also adopt an r strategy, to spread your efforts among a great many more social media applications, recognizing that you will necessarily (and deliberately) spend less time and effort on each one. Technology is helping make this approach more competitive with a K strategy. Through content and profile aggregators and disseminators, you can manage multiple accounts from just one or two Web sites. For example, allows you to push a short message to more than a dozen well-known social media applications. Likewise, FriendFeed will import feeds from multiple sources to integrate separate messages back into one digestible timeline.

If this analogy is sound, the theory suggests that an r strategy will be more successful at the present time, when the social Web environment is changing fast and is relatively unpredictable. But as technologies consolidate, and the social Web stabilizes around a few core technologies, a K strategy might work better.

Thus, as in biology, either strategy might be successful. But in order to be so, you need be conscious of timing and the social Web ecosystem. Even more importantly, you must to follow another fundamental tenet of biology: in order to survive you need to evolve, in order to evolve you need to adapt.

“Dropping things that you are mediocre at and focusing on the things that you can be truly great at is the only path to mastery.”

— Pamela Slim
Lessons from Seth Godin’s talk about “The Dip” in Phoenix today


r versus K selection

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