Why Online Marketers Must Never Take Dunbars Number For Granted

Nearly two decades ago an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar came up with the now widely accepted theory that any single individual has an average social circle of around 150 people. Some people may have a group of friends that is slightly larger or smaller, but the number always averages out to about 150. The theory was later thought by some to have been broken with the advent of online social networks, but has stood the test of time and is widely accepted to be fact. A person can have 500 Facebook friends or 2000 contacts on LinkedIn, but an individual’s actual social circle (those that he or she knows on a first name basis and has a regular relationship with) still ends up being around 150. Without going into the science behind the theory, the take away principle is that the brain and the constraints of time only allow for a maximum number of strong ties/relationships. It’s not impossible, but very difficult for most people to have a solid network of hundreds of hundreds of people.

How does Dunbar’s Number relate to online marketing?

It’s an all too common scenario for both seasoned professionals and those of us who are just starting out, to get caught up in the hard numbers: metrics such as traffic data, the amount of fans on a social media channel, RSS subscribers, etc… These numbers are important and should be measured and improved upon over time, however it’s a mistake to look at the numbers at face value while remaining blind to the ultimate end goal, which is to increase the bottom line. The objective should be to increase conversions, and not only to that, but to hopefully build a loyal base of customers. I like to use the word community.

Taking into consideration that every single person on this planet, your customers/users/readers included, has a short attention span and limited bandwidth for relationships, it’s imperative to make some type of lasting impact with your marketing efforts.

There are several ways to do this, but here some of the essentials:

Amazing content

Most content on the web is boring, out of touch, and created with little care. Well crafted, relevant content always has a better shot of sticking with someone.


If I’m a tech company that sells rugged laptops that are meant for being used out on a job site, but I’m marketing them to college students, there’s obviously going to be a huge disconnect. It’s an extreme example, but to an extent it’s not uncommon for online marketers to misjudge their true audience.

Clear value demonstration

In order for someone to start caring about your brand they have to “get it”. The marketing message must be on point and clear to the people who see it. A great brand isn’t great if the marketing doesn’t effectively communicate it as such.

Customer relationship management

If I’m marketing to a person, the goal should be to develop a brand to customer relationship. Some companies don’t understand this and have an aggressive communication policy that is eerily similar to old school telemarketing ideologies. Strong brand to customer relationships create loyal customers and help fuel positive word of mouth.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg, but nonetheless should be given much attention. Dunbar’s number teaches us that relationships, especially meaningful ones, are a scarce commodity. It’s just serves as even more reason as to why we shouldn’t take for the human element out of online marketing.

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