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The Advantage of “Reach” in a Social Media World

Radio folks talk a lot about the “reach” of radio.  And while “reach” isn’t sufficient, it is necessary if your goal is to spread a message far and wide.

So says social media scientist Dan Zarella in his terrific new book with a recall-resistent title: Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness: The Science, Design, and Engineering of Contagious Ideas


What makes a message “go viral”?  Or, in traditional media terms, what allows a message to spread to as many people as possible?

The first ingredient, says Zarella, is obviously awareness.  And awareness at scale requires reach, not simply a bunch of Twitter users retweeting your content (unless, of course, a vast number of Twitter users are doing the retweeting).

The odds get better for a broadly distributed message, says Zarella, when you start with as large an audience as possible. This is what Zarella calls the “big seed”:

The term “big seed” was first coined by researchers Jonah Peretti and Duncan Watts. They conducted an experiment in which they made a banner ad that users could send to their friends by typing email addresses into it. Peretti and Watts then compared two scenarios: one in which they purchased a large media buy and showed the ad to hundreds of thousands of viewers, and one in which they handed the ad to a few select individuals. Unsurprisingly, the big-seed version did far better than the little-seed version.

This is why, for example, a would-be Presidential candidate declares for President on Twitter – but announces that intention on network television.

It’s why Saturday Night Live skits become huge social media phenomenon after they air on SNL.

Granted, “reach” is not the same as “impact” or “results.”  But as Zarella notes, without “reach” you can’t have “attention,” and without “attention” there’s no “motivation” to share a message with others.

So if kickstarting a viral message is your goal, “reach” is the first prerequisite.

Now what you do with that reach that makes awareness worthwhile…that’s another post altogether.

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