It’s possible to scale social media marketing organically, but to succeed you must understand how relationships works — at scale.

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. […] 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 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 strange mass media phenomenon is that certain individuals tends to be included in many people’s tribes, but without reciprocity, of course.

There seems to be some order in the complex chaos of human relationships.

Dunbar’s number in a networked world

Today, we live in a networked world of social media platforms where you can “know” individuals who you haven’t physically met or spoken to in decades, while still knowing what they had for breakfast, the dynamics of groups are put to the test. 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 also say I know 150 people from the public relations industry, for sure. And I know at least 150 social media naturals, and so on.

How does this scale social media marketing? I appreciate this model by Viil Lid, PhD candidate in Communication & Information Sciences at University of Hawaii:

How to scale social media marketing.
The Interest Group Model: How we as individual shift between roles and communities.

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 amplification of Dunbar’s Number at interest group level — not due to any sudden increase in our capability to sustain more than 150 relationships.

Group sizes of sustainable relationships

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, Liid once again shows us a model that I’ve been using on several of the seminars I’ve given:

scale social media marketing | Social Media Communications | Doctor Spin
The Social Layers Model: We are able to sustain larger networks as ties go weaker.
  • Inner core (3-5 people)
  • Semi-private layer (<150 people)
  • Superficial layer (>150 people)

How many “Dunbar number interest tribes” can a single individual sustain? If we dig deeper into this question, we must also determine the strength of the bindings between individuals. Interestingly enough, we see Dunbar’s number in action once again:

scale social media marketing | Social Media Communications | Doctor Spin
The Group Size Model: How we form groups based on layers.
  • Support clique (3-5 people)
  • Sympathy group (12-20 people)
  • Band (30-50 people)
  • Clan (150 people)
  • Megaband (500 people)
  • Tribe (1,000-2,000 people)

Hos social media marketing scales in a networked world

For organic social media marketing, the above models explains:

  • Social media doesn’t scale linearly, but tapping into several different and pre-existing interest groups does (see also The Engagement Pyramid).
  • Social media sharing is dependent not primarily on volume exposure, but on niches social sharing incentives (see also The Secret Sauce for Social Media Sharing).
  • What you expect from an individual depends primarily on their situational context and communicative behaviour (see also The Publics in Public Relations), not their demographic characteristics.

To build trust is 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. If you’re creating a campaign, it’s important to cater to the inner circles for sure, but don’t forget the outer circles.

The smart digital strategist will understand this new landscape; not primarily by scaling for clicks or opting for viral content, but by understanding the fascinating dynamics of social psychology in a wired world.

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash.