Dunbar’s Number and the Future of Social Media

Every ‘expert’ will tell you that social media is all about relationships. It’s a way to be personal, a way for brands to nurture 1:1 connections with consumers and establish a kind of relationship that has never before been possible. As a social media marketer, you can engage directly with your buyers, and become the steward of the customer experience. It’s an amazing time to work online.

But all of this upside comes with a problem. For businesses with hundreds, if not thousands or millions of customers, building 1:1 connections just isn’t scalable. Why not? Well, ask Robin Dunbar.

Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist from the U.K., best known for his work on network theory. By studying the habits of humans through the ages, Dunbar landed on a finding that has since become known as Dunbar’s Number. Dunbar’s Number defines the number of social relationships that any one person can meaningfully maintain, which turns out to be around 150 (check out this piece from Bloomberg for a deeper explanation).

Dunbar explains: “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us… putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

“But I have 700 Facebook friends!” you say. And it’s true, the average Facebook user now has around 340 friends, although the median is quite a bit lower at around 200.

Platforms like Facebook relieve the cognitive load required to understand not only the identities of people, but how they relate to us and to each other. This is one of the principal benefits of social media — these networks allow us to overcome our cognitive limitations to build larger and larger communities. That ability is right up there with innovations like scuba gear, allowing us to overcome our evolutionary limits (like needing oxygen to breathe).

For global brands, the scaling problem is very real. Consumers increasingly demand personalized relationships and experiences. They expect you to understand their wants and needs, and to be constantly aware of their past interactions with your brand. And they expect you to do it now — via the ‘always on’ channels of social media.

Smart brands are leveraging technology to deliver on this expectation. The most common approach uses software to enable a single seamless relationship with consumers. This takes a ‘one-to-many’ relationship structure, with the brand as the single point of contact owning hundreds or thousands of relationships.

For example, French telecom company Orange uses Hootsuite to centralize global social relationships and provide a unified brand experience across regions and channels. David’s Tea maintains a 95 percent response rate while personalizing those responses to “treat everyone with the unique conversation that they deserve.”

Hundreds of other global brands leverage our ecosystem integrations with customer relationship management (CRM) and experience providers like Zendesk, Microsoft Dynamics, Marketo, and Salesforce to enrich existing customer records with social media data. Regardless of your software of choice, the goal remains the same — enable a unified ‘one-to-many’ relationship between brands and consumers across distributed business units and teams.

This ‘one-to-many’ approach is becoming table stakes for brands who aspire to be digital leaders. But there’s another set of tactics that the true innovators are pursuing. Lets call this second approach ‘many-to-many’ — the goal is empower your employees to build and nurture meaningful relationships on behalf of your brand. Your people can then become your best brand advocates and ambassadors, connecting and engaging directly with consumers. And if you’re smart about it, this approach can scale.

Time for some quick back-of-the-napkin math. We can use Dunbar’s number to get an idea of the number of relationships your employees are capable of maintaining. The equation breaks down like this:

150 x [Software efficiency coefficient] x [Number of Employees] = Number of Meaningful Relationships

‘Software efficiency coefficient’ refers to the ability of your software stack to increase your team’s capacity to manage relationships. Dunbar’s hypothesis hinges on brain size and capacity — if you use software to effectively increase that capacity, you can reap some serious benefits.

For example, if you provide your team with no tools or a limited set, you’re probably not expanding capacity all that much. But if you invest in that capacity to scale connections through a social relationship platform, employee advocacy solution, or social selling software, the benefits increase dramatically.

At Hootsuite, we empower every employee with a three-part stack:

  1. Hootsuite Enterprise (of course) — Hootsuite conservatively adds 5x more capacity for an individual to manage relationships (Twitter list streams anyone?) and exponentially more when integrated with partners like Microsoft Dynamics. Brands who leverage the full capabilities of the platform see WAY more than 5x here, using our solution as the foundation of the “one-to-many” approach we’ve talked about already.
  2. Our employee advocacy tool, Amplify — As this is mostly a sharing tool it doesn’t really add capacity to manage relationships, but it does help you stay top-of-mind with your network by sharing relevant content easily. Let’s give that benefit 1.5x.
  3. A proprietary social selling app that I can’t really talk about yet (but if you’ve been keeping an eye on tech mergers and acquisitions you may have noticed this deal). There’ll be more public information available soon, but for now I’ll guesstimate its impact in this use-case around 3x.

It’s a powerful stack, and truly allows our team to scale relationships. With that investment and full company-wide adoption, our equation might look like this:

150 X 5 (Hootsuite Enterprise) X 1.5 (Amplify) X 3 (Social Selling App) X 1000 Employees (approximately) = 3,375,000 Meaningful Relationships

Whoa, that adds up fast. And as the number of employees grows, this equation becomes exponentially more powerful as your employees become a natural extension of your brand channels.

As social media becomes noisier and noisier, these relationships between real humans become more powerful than any one person’s relationship with a brand could ever be.

The challenge for business leaders is to deploy and integrate systems to increase capacity at the maximum velocity their organization can bear. It’s a race to stay ahead of ever-increasing consumer expectations, to adapt to new technologies at warp-speed.

But above all it’s refreshing to think that in this fragmented landscape of automated technology, that meaningful relationships between people will still be at the heart of our world.

What a time to be alive.