Ears up, eyes open.

Note: This post was originally published on social media explorer

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”.

– Archilochus, as quoted by Isaiah Berlin

Penn psychology professor and noted author Philip E. Tetlock found that the people who are most visibly making predictions in our society, political pundits, have a rate of success that is only slightly greater than that of random chance. He discovered that “hedgehogs,” those that use one “big idea” or principle to guide their conclusions about nearly everything else, make more confident predictions but are correct less often than “foxes,” who use a larger and less-consistent set of inputs to draw conclusions that lead to qualified, nuanced predictions.

Foxes and hedgehogs aren’t just making predictions on television. They’re choosing strategies, making vendor decisions, giving business advice. In the space I study, marketing, you’ll find a lot of hedgehog thinking. When it comes to social in particular, hedgehog thinking results in a peculiar form of nearsightedness called social media myopia. Here are the two most prominent symptoms:

  • An intense focus on a single social channel as “the one” without appropriate regard to the potential of other channels to deliver value
  • A lack of consideration for the larger context that surrounds social, and/or the illusion that social is an entirely separate project with clear boundaries and standalone goals

“It’s working for them,” says the hedgehog. “Not so fast,” says the fox.

The hedgehog marketer, as a result of his or her social media myopia, sees the success others have found with Social Channel A, while using Strategy 1, so he focuses his own efforts almost exclusively on Social Channel A, Strategy 1. The fox, however, takes a step back. He asks questions like:

  • How similar to my own company are the companies that are successful with Social Channel A and Strategy 1?
  • Are there other channels and strategies that can deliver equal or greater value with the same or lower amount of effort?
  • Do I see consistent, repeatable results from companies on Social Channel A, using Strategy 1? Or is the success story that everyone points at really an outlier?

The hedgehog’s social media myopia doesn’t always result in failure, just as the fox’s thinking doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, the hedgehog will often see some success—but his myopia makes him blissfully ignorant of the fact that if he had thought like the fox, who approaches social holistically and with an open mind, he would have seen more of it. As you might have guessed, opportunity cost isn’t something the hedgehog really considers.

“10,000 likes!” says the hedgehog. “A better product!” says the fox.

Social media myopia’s other symptom is just as limiting. The hedgehog thinks social lives in a silo, and never bothers to treat it any other way. He talks about his company’s social wins, using measurements that are uniquely applicable to social. The fox thinks those measurements are just fine, but aren’t telling him the whole story. He sees social as a kind of connective tissue between people and the things they care about. He’s interested in what social signals can tell him about his customers, and he’s thinking about the ways that social influences everything from sales to innovation. He’s developed metrics and systems to gauge these things when the standard metrics haven’t delivered. Some of the questions he’s asking:

  • How are visitors to my site from Twitter behaving differently than visitors from Facebook, Google, and email campaigns—and how should I optimize the site experience for these audiences?
  • Will adding social content (like tweets and reviews from customers) to product packaging and in-store signage increase sales?
  • What ideas for improving my products can I extract from UGC and other social content?
  • Should I be sending people that drive by our billboards to our Facebook page, or our site, given our company’s current goals and what I know about those drivers?

Everyone thinks they’re the fox.

Truth is, sometimes we’re the hedgehog; other times we’re the fox. Social media myopia is treatable, but it takes some work. Step back, question assumptions, map the connections, don’t let sunk costs lock you into choices you wouldn’t make again, learn from mistakes and read everything you can get your paws on. That’s the way of the fox.

5 Responses to “Foxes, hedgehogs, and social media myopia”

  1. That’s not what Dean and I are saying…we’re saying that the *hype* surrounding social may fade, but not the power of social itself. 

  2. Anonymous

    Exactly right, Ian.
    I actually operate under motto ‘connecting is new selling’ – as I support idea that social is powerful way to connect to consumers and achieve company goal, conversions, sales. In the recent years I used email list as a cash-flow tool, now social is part of this strategy. Unfortunately lot of businesses still think about how to get more facebook fans, rather how to move those fans into the right directions – business goals. That’s the hype I am talking about. But social is irreplaceable part of marketing, and with tangible results too. I will keep reading your posts, very good points.

  3. Social media hype may fade, yes, but not the power of social media. It’s also inseparable, when approached correctly, from the conversions and cash-flow you mention. Cheers!

  4. Anonymous

    Good article, Ian. Social media hype will slowly fade under the bright light of mobile and hyper-local. And everyone will start looking for the accountable way to manage social. Yes, conversions and cash-flow always rule…
    … says the fox. :)

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