social media marketing in 2011 and that pesky Dunbar number

Go fish where the fish are..

Dave Allen social media 2011

The new, new thing.

I'm typing this after spending some time digging through tweets and feeds, all of which lately tend to have a predominate theme - social media - which tells you, if you follow my scratchings, that I made some serious follower error in both Twitter and RSS that will now require some culling. What really strikes me though is that the content of the messages, or the subject, is often about the new, new thing in social media, especially as we reach the year end and those galling posts appear, trumpeting "10 new trends in social media marketing in 2011..."

I wonder if there can be anything new in social media. I still find myself only considering media. And anthropology.

Technological tools, social tools if you like, simply shorten the distance between us. They don't create the urge or the need to stay in touch, they make it easier. An earlier technological breakthrough than the Internet showed us that - mobile 'phones.

Although social media has been around a long time it's obvious that social media marketing in 2010 gained a large amount of traction - as pushed by social media marketers that is. For corporations and brands, ROI is the elephant in the room. Perhaps that's why this survey garnered these results: "..in 2010 nearly 60 percent of the respondents realized the highest return on investment (ROI) from Email and the company Website, and those same channels top the list for future investment among 46 percent of those responding."

So, it's email and the company website, stupid!

The medium is not the message.

It appears that bombarding people on Facebook with marketing is not the best use of branding efforts if you are looking for dollar ROI. The social media marketing message is not the medium as some social media "experts" (who should know better) have written. McLuhan explained what he meant by the 'medium': the guts of the television, the tubes, transistors and the wires that lit up the screen, not the messages or images on the screen - today, the servers, networks and nodes of the Internet are the medium. He also showed us how the keyboard was an extension of our fingers and therefore, in that regard, mobile devices are an extension of our fingers and our ears. What we write, see and hear through technological tools is the content. The messages we see and hear from brands across Facebook are not the medium. They're marketing pitches, nothing more nor less, wrapped up in the engagement language of Facebook, aka brands acting as people. And they can be effectively ignored.

Here's a thought - what if the best way to ignore a brand message on Facebook is to Like it. Grab your status symbol and keep on surfing. Surely one has to suspect that if almost 50% of those companies polled are saying that they are putting the same amount of marketing money into the company's Email and website channels in 2011, for ROI reasons, then they have done research that shows social media marketing isn't as effective?

I am not anti social media, I understand its ability in helping millions of folks stay in touch with each other, it's just that I'm not convinced that the metrics that marketers use to show engagement, sentiment, likes et al are actually useful. By that I mean, what are the metrics? Is it ok to just have a million people fan you on Facebook or like your brand? And by just, I mean no real dollar ROI - is it simply good enough to have those flighty, ethereal followers and fans? Maybe it is.

Yet, on the flip side, when your brand gets jacked on Facebook what then? 45,000+ Fans of Lucky Strike are living in a fantasy land by the look of it. And not a word from the brand.

150 is the number.

Which brings me once again to Dunbar's number. Robin Dunbar is a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford and the author of “How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks.” Dunbar and others have "..found that most of us can maintain only around 150 meaningful relationships, online and off." 

In a timely op-ed piece in the December 26th issue of the New York Times, Dunbar has faint praise for the rise of social networking:

Like the proverbial lighthouse blinking on the horizon, our messages fan out into the dark night to every passing ship within reach of an Internet connection. We can broadcast, literally, to the world.

I use the word “broadcast” because, despite Facebook’s promise, that is the fundamental flaw in the logic of the social-networking revolution. The developers at Facebook overlooked one of the crucial components in the complicated business of how we create relationships: our minds.

He goes on to say:

Indeed, no matter what Facebook allows us to do, I have found that most of us can maintain only around 150 meaningful relationships, online and off — what has become known as Dunbar’s number. Yes, you can “friend” 500, 1,000, even 5,000 people with your Facebook page, but all save the core 150 are mere voyeurs looking into your daily life — a fact incorporated into the new social networking site Path, which limits the number of friends you can have to 50.

What’s more, contrary to all the hype and hope, the people in our electronic social worlds are, for most of us, the same people in our offline social worlds. In fact, the average number of friends on Facebook is 120 to 130, just short enough of Dunbar’s number to allow room for grandparents and babies, people too old or too young to have acquired the digital habit.

This isn’t to say that Facebook and its imitators aren’t performing an important, even revolutionary, task — namely, to keep us in touch with our existing friends.

So Dunbar reasserts what Facebook's own research proved - that the average number of friends people have on Facebook is around 120, of which they interact regularly with about 6 of those friends. The backup for those numbers is in this article I wrote a couple of months ago - Why Facebook Likes Are not Engaging.

Who knows what 2011 will bring in social media marketing. More of the same? Probably. Will brands reconsider their spend on Facebook versus dollar ROI? Probably not. Will social media marketers keep using the fishing analogy re Facebook: "Go fish where the fish are.."? You bet they will.

In 2011 I'll be paying attention to my 150 relationships.