Through the recent period of exponential growth in social media, many email marketers have been mesmerized by the pursuit of logarithmic friend pyramids, where each new level expands the customer base by an order of magnitude. Unfortunately, as social networks mature, marketers are finding themselves hitting demarcations based upon the inability of any social media participant to manage boundless friend lists.

A Friend by Any Other Name

The prototypical stereotype of the computer nerd is the chubby bespectacled couch potato sporting a Star Trek TNG four-pip command jersey while crouching over his lapped Core i7 Gulftown (overclocked to 4.73 GHz on Peltier) in his parents’ darkened basement – hardly the paragon of social clique popularity. However, in the new world of social media, this very geek likely commands a throng of “friends” numbering in the hundreds or thousands – a veritable Lindsay Lohan of cyberspace.

The Limits of Evangelization

It turns out that the quotation marks around “friend” are the critical component necessary to fully comprehend this customer. If we utilize the “friend” definition currently applicable to Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media galaxy, our nerd certainly is a prime target for our email marketing efforts. If our fine geek becomes convinced that our iBlivet is the best aide to widgetization available, this is one customer who can be counted upon to metamorphosize into a rabid evangelist and will likely single handedly move more iBlivets among his friend horde than 30 seconds on the Super Bowl.

Or at least it’s supposed to work that way. The reality is that many social media participants are starting to lapse into fuzzy inactivity due to the overwhelming online noise to signal ratio. They are realizing that it is simply not feasible to vividly participate in the minutiae of hundreds or thousands of other lives. The novelty is definitely wearing off, and friends lists throughout the social mediaverse are undergoing a massive cull. This drastic filtering is tending to leave only the personal face-to-face friends in the real world, which in the case of our particular nerd is… no one at all.

Participation Incentives Are Dwindling

Email marketers have been long pursuing the pot of gold at the end of the social media rainbow, and some have experienced outstanding success. As the medium matures, however, we have to come to the realization that bigger is not necessarily better and that the integral value of voluminous friend swarms may actually be a negative factor. Customers with burgeoning friends lists are beginning to suffer from dwindling participation incentives. This trend is actively devaluing the social network itself as well as the archetype of the “trusted endorsement.” When the endorsement is proposed from an acknowledged, accredited, personally known peer, it certainly carries considerable weight. But sooner or later the social media participant is going to start wondering who the heck is this nerd, why is he pitching this, and is iBlivet compensating him for this glowing testimonial?

Beyond Milieu Stakeholding

Any customer’s ability to maintain active participation in social networks across communities and branding is limited at a threshold that is far below the optimum level desired by the stream of marketers who wish to engage them. Simply maintaining a social media presence in 2010 and beyond is not sufficient for brands to achieve their marketing goals. The brands who were quick on their feet and were able to conglomerate key groups of customers early on have been able to win the territorial claim battle, but there is much more to social media success than mere milieu stakeholding. Enduring brand success can only be achieved in the social media ecosystem when a fair and valid exchange is offered for the customer’s time and focus, through an expectation of receiving real, premium value.

The email marketers who are able to distinguish themselves in the social network arena through unflagging, meticulous and honest dedication to the welfare and satisfaction of their individual customers will continue to prevail. The ones who get caught up in pursuing illusory friend pyramids will undoubtedly crash and burn.