Why Follower growth is not a great social media performance metric

Bra Willy Seyama | eNitiate | Social Media Performance | 1+4 Metric Matrix | 4 Sep 2021 Banner-1

Google is awash with articles that show effective measurement of social media is one of the key challenges that marketers continue to face, almost 20 years since the birth of the first known social network platform, called Friendster.

Ironically, we as a performance marketing agency, are confronted with the challenge of convincing our clients that some of the popular metrics are not great social media performance indicators.


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One specific metric that should be relegated to the vanity category is the follower growth, and I shall to provide evidence to that effect in this eNsight.

Table of Contents

What are the key social media performance metrics in South Africa?

This question is key for context.

I found the answer to the question in the SA Social Media Landscape Report 2021, which incorporates a survey where participants are asked the following question:

How are you measuring your social media effectiveness?

The participants in the 2021 survey came from the following professions/industries:

Bra Willy Seyama | eNitiate | Social Media Performance | Industries | SA Social Media Landscape Report 2021 | 1+4 Metric Matrix | 4 Sep 2021-
Source: SA Social Media Landscape Report 2021

It is not unexpected that participants with digital/social media background made up the highest contribution of the survey sample.

Here below are the average responses to the survey question above, based on the selection of the top 5 social media metrics across the 4 main social networks in Mzansi.

Bra Willy Seyama | eNitiate | Social Media Performance | Top 5 social media metrics in 2021 | SA Social Media Landscape Report 2021 | 1+4 Metric Matrix | 4 Sep 2021-
Source: SA Social Media Landscape Report 2021

Paying closer attention, the ranking of the “Number of fans/followers/members/subscribers” metric has been the same on Facebook – the largest social network in South Africa with 23 million users (or 2 in 5 South Africans) – for the years 2018 to 2021.


As the combined graphs with the top 5 metrics across the 4 main social networks above show, the follower growth metric ranks high for Instagram; but it is at the tail end of the packing order for the other 3 social networks, and markedly so for LinkedIn.

Remember that Instagram is also the youngest social network of the 4?

However, I do not have proof that there is a link between the two factors – the importance of size of community metric and length of existence – for this visual content-driven social network.

My takeout

On the one hand, follower growth is not regarded as the most important metric by companies in South Africa.

On the other hand, the ranking of the engagement metric – made up of mentions, comments, likes, RT’s and shares – is relatively higher.


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Despite the seeming popularity of the former metric for some of the clients, the latter metric is seen to be more effective for measuring social media performance by brands overall.

I am pleased by this survey outcome from the SA Social Media Landscape Report 2021. 

Quick points worth noting

Given that the social media metric findings above are based on average responses, let me mention that the survey participants come from both B2B and B2C companies.


  • B2B companies tend to use LinkedIn more than B2C companies.
  • Companies selling products tend to use Instagram more than those that sell services.
  • B2C companies selling high-end or niche products and services will most likely use Twitter more, while companies that sell mass products and services use Facebook more.
  • B2C Companies in sectors where after-sales service is a key part of their business, e.g. airlines and telecoms, are likely to be busiest on Twitter ahead of other social networks. 

It is not apparent how the points above may have affected the top 5 social media metric results one way or the other, but I feel obliged to mention them.

Providing proof

I shall share 3 cases in the rest of this eNsight to demonstrate why companies that are measuring follower growth are chasing after the ineffective social media metric.

Case 1: Exploring the relationship between number of followers and other social media performance metrics

Think of corporate social media as a religious park, housing many independent churches (the companies), led by priests (brands) from different backgrounds, who use the pulpit (corporate social network accounts) to preach the word (social media content) during their sermons (published posts).

The first sermon

When the priests deliver their first sermon on the pulpit on chosen days and times, based on their unique approaches and preaching styles; mainly family (employees), and friends (current consumers) attend the first sermon out of morale support for associated priests, or out of curiosity.

The passage of time

As time goes, some of the churches are led by priests that show unwavering commitment in preparing the word for their sermons and are great at delivering them, consistently.

The sermons are backed by well-coordinated church bands that put in the time to rehearse hymns and perform them movingly.

Church members are the committed advocates who never miss the sermons because they find them uplifting and inspiring; they meet regularly in smaller  groups, on their own, outside the church sermons to build and strengthen their bonds; and encourage one another to spread the word in their own homes, social settings, communities and work places.

And, these committed priests also make time to go out and pray for the sick in their communities, and participate in social upliftment programmes; and encourage their congregations to do the same. 


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What do you think the result will most likely be for the congregations of the committed priests profiled above?

Addition of another layer

Let me keep going.

The members from other churches start to defect to the ones that everybody now speaks about; mentioning their enjoyable sermons with spirit-lifting singing, and community involvement.

Naturally other congregations die as the growing ones keep improving their success formulas that lead to even more growth through defections and joining by new members.

What should the key performance measures of the churches in the religious park be?

Given the scenario I painted with the religious park analogy in this section, which metrics should the churches be prioritising for measurement – growth in their congregations; or:

  • how those attending the sermons react to them, and whether they attend consistently;
  • the extent of the regularity and growth of member-driven small group sessions outside of the official sermons;
  • the impact of community outreaches and social upliftment programmes;
  • feedback about these churches, and specifically their priests, overall; and/or
  • the growing size of their congregations?


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How different is social media performance measurement by the corporate brands, as compared to the religious park analogy?

Case 2: Did you know the biggest municipal Twitter handle in Africa does not put emphasis on number of followers?

eNitiate has been tracking the growth of the City of Joburg’s social media presence since early 2015. Back then, the City’s Twitter account had less than 100 000 followers.

Six years on, the account has amassed 900 thousand additional followers, and has become the poster child for successful running of public service social media marketing. 

What is the secrete behind @CityofJoburg's successful social media marketing?

eNitiate’s detailed analysis of the Johannesburg Municipality‘s social media activities over the years led us to the conclusion that the City’s social media marketing’s secrete formula for its success is made up of the following aspects: 

  • high volume of published daily content, including in support of the City’s busy events schedule (in August 2021, 336 Facebook posts (or 11 a day) and 498 tweets (or 16 a day) were published on official accounts);
  • amplification of content of other related social media accounts by the City; including health, finance, law enforcement, infrastructure development and basic services;
  • responsiveness in real time and all the time, including evenings and weekends;
  • not shying away from controversial topics; and
  • actively leveraging relevant social media topics


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So, what are the key social media performance metrics for the City of Joburg?

Hear it from the Deputy-Director of Online Communications in the City – Tumelo Komape – who I interviewed in a 16-part Zoom series in 2020:

Clearly, the City ‘s social media performance metrics are related to reach and social crm, which may include response rates and response times.

In return, no wonder the residents flock to the City’s social media accounts, proof that TK and his Social Media team walk the talk under the #WeServeJoburg banner.

Case 3: Jack Dorsey of Twitter has the last word on follower growth as a social media performance metric

Care to know what Jack Dorsey – the co-founder and CEO of Twitter – thinks about the dominant display of followers, and like and retweet buttons on Twitter profiles?

Watch the short video below, extracted from TED Vancouver 2019, to find out.

The quote below from Jack Dorsey reveals how we have been manipulated by this microblog – and other social networks, I might add – to believe that number of followers is important.

One of the choices we made in the early days was we had this number that showed how many people follow you. We decided that number should be big and bold. And, anything that's on the page [and] it's big and bold has importance. Those are the things you wanna drive. Was that the right decision at the time? Probably not.

There is no doubt Jack now knows that the display of the number of followers drives the wrong Tweeter behaviour, and he admits Twitter is to blame for its part.

How refreshing! 

My point made?

I hope the 3 cases shared in this eNsight, starting with the religious park analogy, clearly demonstrated that follower growth is not a good social media performance metric.

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