Social Media Success And The Law Of Non-Linearity

I’ve been hearing the term non-linearity ad-nauseum for more than a couple of weeks everywhere I go. The context here is that for businesses to grow (and prosper), they need to move away from linear revenue models – towards something that is non-linear.

Fair enough – and sounds good too. Problem is, when rubber hits the road, all the fancy ideas about non-linearity vanish, and what’s left behind are pieces of linearity to pick up. At least until we can take a step back and really think through and apply the non-linear strategies in our life, work and play.

The Pareto Principle – or the 80/20 Rule is something all of us learnt in school. Almost everything we do in life – online and offline – follows this principle, in some shape or form.

As a refresher, here is the Wikipedia definition of the Pareto Principle:

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Business management thinker Joseph M. Juran suggested the principle and named it after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population; he developed the principle by observing that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas.

Goes without saying, Vilfredo Pareto must have been a pretty intelligent man. Pity, he didn’t have Twitter, LinkedIn and blogging to support him in his research. Had these tools been around then, we would have had some pretty interesting social media success principles handed down to us on a platter.

Success in, and with social media is definitely non-linear. It’s way different than a 9-5 job, or even an hourly gig. You can certainly spend eight solid hours on Twitter (or Facebook) and not make a single penny.

Johnny Laird had a pretty interesting interview with Mike Cliffe-Jones last week. And like it is for anyone who is starting out, Mike’s growth as a blogger and in the social media world was anything but linear.

To quote Mike from the interview:

I do remember days when we both worked 16 or 17 hours and ended up earning less than a dollar!

But the beauty of this non-linearity is that when it works, it’s a windfall!

Drawing once again from the same interview:

Blogging for an income is anything but linear. I was looking at figures for Lanzarote Information the other day. The income on that blog doubled from April to July last year, and did the same again from July to September. It’s like a snowball.

The same sentiments about non-linear success in social media keep resonating through the problogging wisdom.

Peter Lang, a leading social media strategist captured this non-linearity principle in one of his blog posts, Time and Growth of Social Media is Non Linear:

The art of social media success comes from trying to figure out what’s appropriate given the situation. Growth will come, but only with high levels of effort. Developing a social media strategy and aligning it with the your business and personal capabilities is vital when working in a non-linear environment like social media.

It’s also important to note that the 80/20 rules becomes much more skewed in certain scenarios with a tendency to approach the theoretical maximum of 99/1. Social media is most certainly one domain where this tendency holds good.

Social Media Today reported a Nielsel study in the UK with Twitter, and came back with a finding that 79% of the tweets came from 7% of the users. What a skew!

Dave Doolin of Website In A Weekend made an interesting comment on one of Nathan Hangen’s blog posts:

There’s only so many hours in a day, and if you can’t get it to go non-linear at some point, it won’t work!

When it comes to success with social media, The Principle of Non-Linearity rules. There’s no beating it, no exceptions.

Here are some of the ways this principle impacts all of us in social media.

Let’s define the variable factors that govern our social web life here:

  • Number of posts
  • Number of comments
  • Number of visitors
  • Number of subscribers
  • Number of followers
  • Number of tweets
  • And the three omnipresence variables – time, effort, money

The Pareto Principle breaks down into the following assertions for social media success:

20% of your posts will get you:

  • 80% of your comments
  • 80% of your visitors
  • 80% of your subscribers
  • 80% of your followers
  • 80% of your tweets
  • And will also take up 80% of your time, effort
  • And will get you 80% of your revenues!

Bring in the other variables on the 20% side of the equation, and you’ll pretty much get the same story.

The key message here is, you don’t know which 20% of your posts will get you here. And that’s where you need to bring your experience and insights in.

Every few days, you should take a step back and sieve your top 20% variables – and replicate them.

Success breeds success – and unless you make an educated effort to replicate success, you’ll always be firing in the dark.

This periodic evaluation will also ensure that you can free up your resources to activities that matter the most – for you. Everything else, is just a pipe dream in thin air!

And on a more philosophical note, the message is simple:

If you are currently spending 99% of your time making 1% of your income, stay put. The Law of The Farm is at work!

The same principle of non-linearity that holds you back will throttle you to success.

You’ll get to a point where you spend 1% of the time that you’re currently spending making 99% more than what you’re currently making.


(Image Credit: tabogarcia

6 Responses to Social Media Success And The Law Of Non-Linearity
  1. Mike CJ
    Twitter: mikecj
    August 6, 2010 | 12:47 am

    Interesting post. And I’d add something to the mix. I have found that as well as most things net related being non-linear, they also all seem to suffer from some kind of plateau effect.

    Almost every metric I’ve measured relating to our sites and social media presence has demonstrated this from time to time. Twitter is the latest example for me. My followers grew slowly, then faster and faster (I don’t use any automation at all) and then over the last three months they reached a plateau. Now they’ve started growing again.
    Mike CJ recently posted… Ignore the drama and crack on

    • Kapil Apshankar
      August 9, 2010 | 12:57 pm

      You’re right Mike – the plateau inevitable comes.

      I’m guessing there are multiple plateaus – not just one. Each of them corresponding to a certain level of success, whatever the yardstick of measurement may be.

      In your case, for example, it’s most likely an indication of moving from being a blogging pro – to a problogger 🙂

  2. Johnny Laird
    Twitter: johnnylaird
    August 12, 2010 | 6:44 am

    … appreciate you hi-lighting my interview with Mike, who did an absolutely great job with the questions I gave him.


    Johnny Laird recently posted… London Social Diversity

    • Kapil Apshankar
      August 13, 2010 | 4:34 pm

      No problem, Johnny. You’re always welcome!

      Mike’s interview on your site is fabulous – couldn’t help referencing the non-linear aspect of social media success that Mike talked about.

  3. […] into gratuitous self promotion, I was pleased to get a shout out from Kapil Apshankar in his post “Social Media Success And The Law Of Non-Linearity” when he referenced my recent interview with […]

  4. Melissa
    May 16, 2011 | 1:19 pm


    I’ve recently discovered your blog and I’m learning a great deal from the content. Thank you! But I just wanted to point out that the Pareto Principle is about root cause analysis and it does hold true that when you are looking for the cause of a problem in an engineering effort, 80% of problems will be caused by 20% of the problems. Fix those 20% and you’ll have stability. The principle was never meant to apply to building a business/following etc where you need to have all your ducks in a row, a bit of secret sauce and then some luck and good timing. These later items were never meant to be measured using Pareto’s theories.