Most of you know Dunbar’s Number. It’s the idea that each and everyone of us has a limited social bandwidth:

“Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. […] No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150. Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.”

As we entered the industrial society, family- and tribe sizes decreased. Paired with the acceleration of mass media, celebrities started to play an even more significant role in our lives. The theory holds up for average persons, but how does it works for the celebrities and/or influencers themselves? The strange mass media phenomenon is that certain individuals tends to be a part of many people’s tribes, but without reciprocity. The relationship simply doesn’t have to be mutual, a pretty cynical new world order indeed.

However, in a social media world where you can walk into an old classmate in the streets, an individual who you haven’t physically met or spoken to in decades, but you can still know that that person actually went on a spectacular vacation last week. Because you’ve seen the pictures on Facebook.

Moreover, I would say I do know 150 people that I’ve spent time with over the years. But I also know 150 colleagues that I’ve had. I would say I know 150 people from the PR industry. And 150 people who are social media naturals. How does this work? I love this simple model by Viil Lid, PhD candidate in Communication & Information Sciences at University of Hawaii:

When I’m asked what makes the “social media revolution” so special, I always say that never before in human history have we seen human groups forming at such speeds, almost totally independent of demographic factors. It’s the multiplication of Dunbar’s Number at the interest group level.

Now, Victor Hugo famously said that there’s no army in the world who can measure up to an idea which time has arrived. As social connections are reciprocal in a multitude of low-friction interest groups, ideas are simply traveling faster from individual to individual. However, this effect is so massive, that many are fooled into describing rapids spreads as “viral”. However, viral spreads implies social scaling, but the only actual scaling that takes place is the forming of intricate layers of interest group relationships, like a central nervous system in which signals can travel.

What makes the effects of digital spread show likeness to viral infections are the fact that there are boundary spanners, individual nodes who has existing relationships in several different types of interest networks.

For each of these networks, Vil Liid once again shows us a powerful infographic that I’ve been using on several of the seminars I’ve given:

So one question is, how many “Dunbar Number Interest Tribes” can a single individual sustain? If we dig deeper into this question, we soon must determine the strength of the bindings between individuals. Interestingly enough, we see Dunbar’s Number once again functioning as a divider of the two largest groups in terms of social penetration.

For social media marketing, this explains:

  • Social doesn’t scale, but tapping into several different and pre-existing interest group systems does
  • Spread is dependent not primarily on volume exposure, but on niche social incentives
  • What you expect from an individual depends on their layer of engagement, not their demographics

But a word to the wise: Keep a holistic approach to scaling in social media. If you’re creating a campaign, it’s important to cater to the inner circles for sure, but don’t forget the outer circles. Because your brand needs to be relevant to them as well.

I use Seth Godin’s model to explain why:

The funnel can be seen as a way of describing Lid’s models above, but what I like about this model is that it makes it clear that there’s a journey from the periphery to the center. You start any relationship, whether to an individual or a brand, by being a stranger. Not every stranger becomes a friend and the deeper the relationship, the bigger the gravitational effort is required.

So your social media strategy really needs to not only cater to the fans, but also converting strangers into the funnel. But not any strangers, because if you attract the wrong interest groups, then you will be on a path to turning your brand into something that won’t be good for business.

This also explains why true passion and authenticity serves as shortcuts to success, why sharing is caring and good for business. But the über-smart digital strategists are also making their way in this new climate; not by scaling social or going for viral, but by understanding the dynamics of social psychology in leveraging data-driven marketing strategies.