Whether you're a ninja, guru, or mere mortal user of social media, you've likely guessed how many people read your Facebook posts. Among the estimation techniques reported in a recent study by Stanford University and Facebook: "I figured about half of the people who see it will ‘like’ it, or comment on it"; "number of people who liked it times 4"; and "maybe a third of my friends saw it."
It turns out, however, that none of these strategies are particularly accurate. Throughout June 2012, researchers tracked Facebook posts from 220,000 users while asking the posts' authors to guess how many friends had seen individual updates. On average, participants guessed their audience was about 27% of its true size.
"For these posts without feedback," the study's authors offer as an explanation for users’ consistent underestimation: "It might be more comfortable to believe that nobody saw it than to believe that many saw it but nobody liked it."
Other possible reasons include users basing estimates on whom they see on Facebook without accounting for people who are reading, but not responding, and the unknown criteria Facebook uses to determine what shows up in friends' News Feeds. The study found no straightforward way to predict audience size based on likes, comments, or friend count.
Most Facebook users, however, wouldn't necessarily be disappointed to find out they're reaching more people than they've guessed. Only 3% of study participants wanted a smaller audience than they thought they had, while about half wanted a larger audience. Another half were satisfied with their audience—how zen.
But given that we base our social media actions at least partly on the audience we imagine for our content, understanding that the imagined audience is often smaller than the real one could be important.
As the study's authors put it: "Posting to a social network site is like speaking to an audience from behind a curtain. The audience remains invisible to the user: While the invitation list is known, the final attendance is not."
[Image: Flickr user Ben Husmann]