What is the Honeycomb Model?
The Honeycomb model is a way of setting out the most important forces behind the social media ecology which all social media marketers, users and platforms operate within. Here’s how the blocks look in their honeycomb formation.
It’s made up of seven blocks, each of which represents a key aspect of how social is used:
- Sharing – “The extent to which users exchange, distribute and receive information.”
- Presence – “The extent to which users know if others are available.”
- Relationships – “The extent to which users relate to each other.”
- Identity – “The extent to which users reveal themselves.”
- Conversations – “The extent to which users communicate with each other.”
- Reputation – “The extent to which users know the social standing of others and content.”
- Groups – “The extent to which users are ordered or form communities.”
These seven blocks can be used either individually or together to help marketers analyse things like their social media activities, their audience, and the wider social media ecosystem in which they are operating.
The key way the honeycomb enables this is by focusing our attention on the most important elements of how social media works. We can use it as a checklist of key strategic factors, to work through methodically during planning or evaluation. Structuring strategy sessions in this way can help ensure crucial areas don’t get left out of our anlyses.
So, if you were creating a social media masterplan for a brand, you might ask “How will we factor in our audience’s social media sharing habits?”, “What’s our plan for building our reputation on social?” etc. Using the honeycomb model, like so, ensures all the most important strategic bases are covered.
Getting to know the seven blocks of the social media honeycomb
Think of the seven blocks of the social media honeycomb as a conversation-starter for your social strategy sessions. Each one can spark all sorts of enlightening conversations about the social ecosystem and your brand’s place within it.
These conversations should be specific to your own brand and its situation – but to help get you started, let’s talk through some examples of questions that apply to most businesses, along with Target Internet’s marketer-centric definitions of the honeycomb building blocks:
What do social users reveal about their identities, e.g. name, age, gender, location, profession, education?
The information users make available about their identity is critically important in social media marketing, primarily because it is central to how we target leads with advertising and outreach. If a person’s social profile and/or activity tells us they have identity traits A, B and C, we can deduce they are a high-potential lead for the brand to target.
Not only does social media reveal things about a person’s real-world identity; it can also form their identity digitally. From teenagers messaging their friends on Instagram to executives sharing content on LinkedIn, all sorts of people use social to affect how others see them.
- How close is the identity users present on social to the identity we can infer from other information sources?
- If clear differences seem to exist, how should that be reflected in our strategy?
- What’s the right balance between obtaining and processing user data vs. respecting users’ privacy?
- How does social content help users build their online/real identity?
How are users communicating via social? Understanding this is key to forming a social media marketing strategy that feeds into user conversations effectively.
Conversations are the lifeblood of social media – whether they’re in the form of comments, messages, or even likes/favourites. Social marketers should work to favourably shape conversations between their brand and users, and also between one user and another.
- How much communication between users could be happening via private social channels, such as Twitter DMs or Facebook Messenger? Marketers refer to these types of communication as “dark social” – as in, the side of social we can’t see. Read more on this in our guide to dark social.
- How should the brand interact with its audience via social? Which channels should be used, and how will customer service interactions via social be managed?
- How will the brand stay tuned-in to public conversations involving itself on social media? Staying updated on what people are saying about the brand and its sector helps with managing PR threats and creating the right social content. We cover this topic in detail in our podcast episode: Social Media Listening Tools.
How do users share content on social? Sharing videos, images, text, links, locations, event and various other kinds of information is a big part of what makes social media social.
One of the key reasons people share content is identity formation. If sharing a content item is seen as something that would reinforce a person’s identity, the likelihood of them sharing it will be higher. As such, marketers need to ensure sharing and engaging with their content will help customers come across as their best selves, so to speak.
- What can we identify about how our audience shares content? What are the characteristics of the content they share?
- What are the mutual interests of people in the brand’s target audience? Identify these and you’ll have a strong basis for creating content that gets shared to the right people from a commercial perspective.
To what extent is a person or business present on social media, and how aware are other users of this?
Some social media platforms have mechanisms for making the extent of a user’s presence public: for instance, Facebook Pages are automatically updated with a read on how long the page owner usually takes to respond.
Another aspect of presence is how a person’s presence on social media relates to their presence in the physical world. This connection is made through actions such as location tagging, and the listing of bricks-and-mortar business addresses.
- How present will our brand be on social?
- Does this align with customer expectations?
- What are our customers revealing about their physical location on social?
- Could and should we feed that information into our social marketing strategy?
How are social users related to one another, and how do these relationships manifest as terms of social media interactions? Social users can have drastically varying degrees of relatedness – from total strangers who simply follow each other’s accounts, to couples who interact privately on social and post their relationship status publicly, to groups of friends who heavily use groups messaging and events functionalities.
B2C relationships on social can also take lots of different forms. Some users might “like” a business purely to get its content in their feed; others might make customer service requests or even transactions via social messaging.
- How do our customers relate to one another on social, and how should this feed into our strategy?
- What would we like our social media relationship with customers to be, and vice versa? Finding a happy medium between these two ideals is key.
- What does the nature of a social media relationship say about the likelihood of our goals being met, e.g. how much likelier or less likely are our followers to share our content with people they relate to very closely?
- How does our relationship with a customer on social play into our overall relationship with that customer?
What can customers learn about their own reputation and the reputation of others on social media?
Social platforms feature a vast array of mechanisms for quantifying the reputation of others, including likes, blue ticks, connections and follower counts.
A slight curveball within this is that many social users are skilled at differentiating between legitimate indicators of social reputation, and gamed driven by bots and manual manipulation. So, although an account using engagement bots may score higher on reputation indicators such as likes and comments, its reputation may be relatively low in the eyes of perceptive users.
- What are our business’ customer reputation goals, as measured quantitively in likes, follows etc., and also in terms of how the brand is perceived? Which social media metrics are the best indicators of performance against those goals?
- How does our social media reputation compare with our key competitors? Are the differences in proportion with other performance metrics such as market share?
- How does our social media share of voice (SOV) relate to our reputation?
How are people using social to form groups and sub-communities? X% of social media activities happens through private channels, and a major component of that hidden, dark social community takes place via groups and other sub-communities.
This is a side of social some businesses are better-placed to tap into than others. For the musician hiring platform Last Minute Musicians, running and advertising through the group is a valuable source of brand visibility and custom, while for other brands, building a community on social is not such a natural fit.
Every group has a focal point, be that a shared interest or a shared need. Marketers who can place their brand at the centre of a successful group earn the opportunity to turn that group into a marketing channel in its own right.
- Which social groups or sub-communities are our customers involved in?
- Would a group be an appropriate marketing channel for our brand? If so, a community manager will be required to manage and/or monitor it.
How to use the honeycomb model in your social media strategy
Above all, the honeycomb model is a resource for better understanding how social works. There’s no standard way to use it beyond that point, but we’d like to put forward a suggestion that works for us: using the building blocks of the honeycomb as a checklist to test your social strategy against.
When forming a new strategy or assessing a completed campaign, go through each of the blocks and consider the relationship between your activity and the social ecosystem. A condensed version of your conclusions might look a little like this might end up a little like this:
|Identity||While our ad campaign had good reach, we need a better mechanism for capturing user data if we are to maximise benefits.|
|Conversations||Our Google Analytics data suggests the campaign may have led to a high volume of “dark social” sharing and traffic.|
|Sharing||The content produced for our campaign was heavily shared. More of the same next time.|
|Presence||Users expect a faster message response time from our Facebook page.|
|Relationships||We lost efficiency in the sales funnel by failing to support transactions over social. This mechanic of the B2C relationship should be reviewed.|
|Reputation||We gained 5,000 likes as a result of the campaign. That brings us in line with our top competitor on this particular reputation metric.|
|Groups||We have insufficient data on whether our campaign content was shared in any groups or subcommunities.|
Social media is complex, and marketers have less visibility over how users interact with their campaigns than they do over their own websites, which can be monitored with tools like Google Analytics and Hotjar. This means understanding why campaigns pan out as they do can be challenging. Using the honeycomb to guide planning and evaluation does not completely solve that challenge, but it can be a big help.
The history of the honeycomb model – and some thoughts on its future
Several, marketing authorities trace the honeycomb model’s origins back to a group of academics from the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver: Jan Kietzmann, Kristopher Hermkens, Ian McCarthy and Bruno S. Silvestre.
It’s true that this group developed and popularised the honeycomb model through their article, Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media (2011). However, that article itself attributes the origins of the model to online communications expert Gene Smith, who set out the honeycomb using an alternative “building blocks” metaphor in his blog post, Social Software Building Blocks (2007).
Furthermore, Smith’s model was based on a list of social media elements that was assembled by Matt Webb – and that list was, in turn, an expanded version on a list created by Stewart Butterfield (2003).
Kietzmann, Kermkens, McCarthy and Silvestre’s contribution was to develop the work of Smith, Webb and others into a more useful model for marketers.
We’ve chosen to end with this section in order to get across an important point: the forces driving social media are constantly developing. The building blocks of the social ecosystem may evolve or change completely within the next few years, so please do bear this in mind and add to the honeycomb with blocks of your own design if the need arises.