Your Social Network is Limited to 150

Dunbar’s Number and Social Rules as they Apply to Business, Online

For those of you who know the BusinessCard2 team, you’ve heard us talk at almost every occasion about the Rule of 150 (also know as Dunbar’s Number).  In short, the Rule of 150 suggests that we are limited in our ability to manage our social networks as a rule of social nature.  Although the Rule of 150 certainly applies in the authentic world, we also feel strongly that this law applies to social networking on the web as well.

See, in both the real and virtual worlds, you can accumulate as many friends/contacts as you wish, but there are limitations to managing all those relationships.  Your time, your channel of communication, your frequency often means that you’re simply not able to maintain some of these relationships.  Even under artificial methods (such as automated emails or responses) it is nearly impossible to fulfill the fine details of actually maintaining the relationship.

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.

No doubt there are instances of incredible social butterflies who can legitimately manage say 200 or 250 people, but that is the extreme and not the norm.  Likewise, there are people whose circle is probably limited to 75 or 100.  The point is that there are theoretical limits to maintaining enough intimacy in your social network relationships for them to qualify for your circle.

In both the real and virtual worlds, people argue us on whether the Rule of 150 applies.  The naysayers swear that they are living proof this 150 limit can be broken.  These skeptics say advances in social networking technology are helping them supersede the theoretical limits.  Yet, a survey of those they claim are part of their network quickly exposes a myriad of people that don’t consider the naysayer in their circle of 150.  This is a point of great distinction: someone is only in your circle of 150 if they too say you are in their circle of 150.

A couple of weeks ago we had the opportunity to meet with and attend a great presentation by leading blogger Seth Godin here in Minneapolis.  Seth is a respected thought leader in the evolution of tribes, and someone who well understands the social implications of being a human on the internet.  To quote his recent blog post, “Dunbar’s Number isn’t just a number, it’s the law.”

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.

How do you connect with those you don’t already know?  The answer isn’t your social circle.  Rather, you need to find points of need.  For example, if a prospect needs a new purse and goes on the web, she will probably run a search.  If she knew that you sell purses already, she would have probably just called you or visited your website.  The fact is that she doesn’t.  The problem for you is that you also don’t know about her and that she’s on the market for a new purse.  So, you need to find a way to tap her interest/need.  We all know how advertising with Google Adwords works: we can capture her eye by advertising at the point of need in a search engine.  But, let’s take this approach to a social network situation…

Say she mentions, “I’m looking for a new purse” on her Facebook page or Twitter feed.  If you don’t know her and don’t follow her, you’ll never know about it.  Now maybe one of her friends or followers will read about the fact she is looking for a new purse, but unless her friends recommend you as a great purveyor of purses, you’re still missing the intersection of need with your solution.  If you’re following the point here, you’ll understand why it’s so difficult to use social networking for commercial purposes.  To grow your business you are looking to connect with new prospective customers (not just the customers you already have).  Since there are limitations to your prospects’ social circle, the idea that they will follow you or seek you out is an unreasonable expectation.

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.

[Note: if you have created new customers by using Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twtter, please share your story.   How did they find you and how did you convert them?]

[Also: Read, “Is the Promising of Social Media Enough? What about ROI?“]


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