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Sarah UKFast | Account Manager

Small Networks Can be Beautiful Networks

18 August 2011 by Guest

This is a guest blog by Steve Downes, Managing Director of Juice Digital, Manchester. 


In 1992 a British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, suggested that there is a limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. He postulated that this was somewhere between 100 and 230, with the common value being 150. That became known as Dunbar’s number

Further research by anthropologists has given the theory much credibility with community sizes of tribes in the Neolithic period, through villages in the Domesday Book and settlements in the16th Century conforming remarkably consistently to the theory.

The number has been taken into military and business organisation planning as the maximum size for effective control of operating units. It even correlated to theaverage number of Christmas cards people sent and received!

Online social media networks are no different. Enormous amounts of time, energy and money are being expended to create huge networks with the aim of exploiting them for various objectives – personal, commercial and political. While lip-service is paid to measuring the influence of these communities,the eye keeps returning to the prize of the huge and growing network. Starbuck’s 24 million Facebook fans and the viral video that got 10 million views is the Holy Grail.

But what does Dunbar’s number tell us about what these huge networks can be used for?  They can be leveraged in lots of very useful and valuable ways – building or creating brand /product awareness, promotions, getting real-time customer feedback, CRM, idea-sourcing, market research, demographic analysis. All extremely valuable outcomes and well worth building a network for.

But are the numbers the important factor in influencing through engagement? Dunbar’s number implies not. To achieve a change in attitude or sentiment towards a brand you need a deep relationship. And it’s difficult to have that with millions of people.

Think about your own social networks. If you’ve got a significant number of followers/friends on your channels, how many of them do you actually engage with on anything like a regular-enough basis to influence their thinking? I’ll have a bet it’s not much more than 150.

So what does that mean for brands? If one of their objectives of using social media channels goes beyond awareness etc and requires real engagement how does that affect the value of social media marketing?

The answer is, of course, influence. If the reality is that only around 150 of your network is truly engaged, you’d better make sure they’re highly influential. And you should be spending your resources on them. If in turn their 150 truly engaged connections are equally influential the numbers start to work.  150², 150³ etc. and you start to get back to those Starbucks numbers.

So the lesson is to focus more on analysing the influence of your network and target your resources and efforts accordingly.  Yes, grow your network and use it to your advantage, but find out who your potential 150 human marketing channels are and talk to them. A lot.

Right, I’m off to the pub with my 149 mates.