The Limits of Social Business to Actual Business

Back in October 2009 I wrote the Post: Your Social Network is Limited to 150.  I grow ever convinced that to generate more business you are limited by this social theory, and thus need to find ways to connect with new nodes (those who you were previously disconnected with).  My industry colleague Stowe Boyd sees it different.  In his post, he dispatches the notion that Dunbar’s Number applies to anything other than the “largest stable social group”.  I guess Stowe and I can just agree to disagree.

This morning, Forbes published the article Friendships in the Digital Age.  In this article (in my estimation) they rightly cite concentric circles (surely one circle of which would apply to the stable social group) and Dunbar’s Number as the limits of individual organizational structure.  There are two points in this article that I’d like to hit on:

1. Detailed Personal Knowledge Missing

If you don’t know how a person thinks, acts, what they look like, how they behave, can they really exist in your social network?  Sure, you can plausibly contain that person in a contact list, but I would hardly say that the fact they follow you on Twitter qualifies that person as part of your social network.

2. The Attributes of your Personal Social Network

Trust, direct knowledge, activity, peer pressure, behavior, and motivation matter in qualifying the personal social network.  In short, if you don’t need to trust these people, if you don’t have direct knowledge of these people, if you don’t conduct activities (whether on or offline) with these people, if you don’t have some sense of peer pressure from these people, if you don’t consider your behavior around these people, and if you are not motivated about these people, then they are NOT part of your social network.

In both the real and virtual worlds, we have people coming in and out of our 150 circle all the time.  Some stay in the circle and never leave (a spouse, best friend, etc.) and some enter and leave quickly (a teammate on your softball team) and some are there, leave, and come back again.  For every person who enters your circle of 150, there is an equal and opposite reaction with someone leaving your circle.

The Rule of 150 is especially important as companies of all sizes strike out to find customer gold on the web by using social networking.  If you could do more business with your online network, you already would be.  Growing your business online is about connecting with NEW PROSPECTS AND CUSTOMERS.  Your professional life will be made much easier if you accept that your circle is limited to roughly 150, and you turn your energy from trying to tap the network you have to the prospects (nodes) that you don’t already know.  If you draw this in a communications model, you are a node and your customer prospect is a node, and the two of you are disconnected (the signal has not been tied).

To discover and connect with new customers, you need to think like an engineer.  The question to ask yourself is, “How to I build a bridge between two previously disconnect points?”  That is, how does someone that doesn’t know about you connect with you, and how do you connect with someone you don’t already know?  In the real world, it’s called leads and referrals.  On the web, it’s discovering prospects at the point of need.  In the highest percentage of web-based social networking this will not work, because of the Rule of 150.

In summary, despite my deep respect for Stowe Boyd’s wisdom, I’m still a firm believer that Dunbar’s Number applies and that there is a limit to our social network.  As it applies to business, one is best served by acknowledging these limits and not accepting the pretense that you can turn a contact list into a your social network.  Instead, you can work within the limits of 150 and strike out to form connections/ties with customers both outside of your 150 and even outside of your contact list.  These “ties” can be enhanced by treating the customer prospect in much the same way as you treat those who qualify in your 150: build trust, provide them knowledge about you, give them a way to interact with you.  However, don’t expect them to accept the same behavior you might use with your 150 (because although you’ve given them the power to form a tie, they are not and likely never will be part of your social network, but at best part of a contact/customer list.)

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