Jan 25, 2016 / by Jim Dougherty

A study published last week in the Royal Society Open Science questions the conventional wisdom of how effectively social networks can perpetuate word-of-mouth communication.

The author, anthropologist Robin Dunbar (best known for Dunbar’s Number, the “cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships”) concludes that genuine relationships may “require at least occasional face-to-face interaction to maintain them.”

This should be of high interest to communication and marketing professionals. If the size of a person’s network doesn’t correlate with their actual influence, we probably ought to figure out the correct metrics to plan where to budget marketing or PR dollars. Of course it’s not that simple.

What I want to do in this post is to examine five points that Dunbar, marketing professor Jonah Berger and mathematician Stephen Wolfram use to suggest that when it comes to social networks, the numbers may be misleading.

Social networks are where a lot of people spend a lot of time to share a lot of stuff, but harnessing them for communication and marketing is much more difficult than it may appear.

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1. We only have a handful of trusted friends (despite what Facebook says)

One of Dunbar’s most compelling datapoints comes from a survey of social media users in the U.K. who were asked about the number of friends that they look to for support and for sympathy.

Despite having online social networks of 100-200 friends on average (some had over 800 friends), 85 percent of respondents stated that they had 10 or less friends that they would turn to for support and 75 percent said they had 20 or less friends that they would look to for sympathy.

In others words, most people said that they would seek support from between 1 percent and 10 percent of their social media “friends.”

trusted friends on Facebook

This substantiates other research indicating that almost nine out of 10 people trust online reviews as much as the recommendation of a friend. Facebook may label our connections as friendships, but the large majority of most people’s social networks consist of acquaintances that may not have the influence over their network that we might predict.

2. Social network friends are homogeneous… and difficult to segment


An insight gleaned from research done by mathematician Stephen Wolfram, and pointed out by Dunbar as well, is that our social networks (primarily Facebook) consist of distinct social circles, the large majority of which are peers. The only exceptions to this were teenagers and the oldest people surveyed.

So what does this mean for PR and marketing? Coupled with the idea that our sphere of influence is far smaller than social networks indicate, how do you insure that the one to 10 percent of actual friends are in the peer group that you want to reach?

It’s plausible that you could achieve a word-of-mouth objective with social media without any benefit.

3. Narrowcasting is a more effective modality for word-of-mouth


In his book Contagious, marketing professor Jonah Berger makes a fairly shocking assertion about word-of-mouth marketing: most of it happens offline. The research behind this is pretty interesting (good interesting) and he asserts that one of the reasons that social media isn’t as effective as offline recommendations is that through social media we broadcast one-to-many.

Narrowcasting, or one-to-one (or even one-to-few) communication is more effective for word-of-mouth according to Berger because it can be personalized in the way a broadcast cannot. He says that broadcasting ends up with a “self-focus” and “self-presentation” that isn’t as accessible to “friends” as it is when you’re speaking in person to a friend.

As Mark Roberge writes in The Sales Acceleration Formula, you’re much more likely to find a “pain point” by probing than by broadcasting.

One factor that may help PR or marketing professionals qualify a social group is the tendency of group members to write reviews and give recommendations. Berger says that people who are likely to give reviews and recommendations are oftentimes more receptive to recommendations from others.

4. The growth of Snapchat may be because of its one-to-one modality, instead of its magical features


Dunbar suggests that the rise of one-to-one and one-to-few social platforms may be a result of difficulty managing one-to-many social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. He says that younger people are especially predisposed to accepting a large number of acquaintance connections, but generally have fewer “quality” connections than adults.

This becomes difficult to manage (and as Sherry Turkle points out in her book Alone Together, there is an identity conflict when everything a kid broadcasts on social media may be read by parents and extended family).

PR and marketing professionals can interpret this in a few ways, but here are a couple of clear takeaways:

  • The younger the audience, social audience may be increasingly less indicative of influence
  • Influencing through narrowcasting platforms may be a trend to consider for the future

If Snapchat, WhatsApp and others have grown in response to a need for network insulation as opposed to unique platform features, the number of connections through narrowcasting platforms may be more indicative of a person’s capability to influence their network.

5. Social word-of-mouth is asynchronous, which is kind of bad


Berger points out that social media is posted asynchronously. We don’t always think of it like this, but for most messaging and purchase decisions, synchronicity is ideal.

If a person doesn’t have a pain point at the same time that content is posted to social media, it’s less likely that they’ll refer back to a social post rather than asking a friend or consulting online reviews.

Proximity to an influencing event matters, which is why one of my favorite features of the Cision Social Software is how it recommends people to reach out to. It’s a very thoughtful way to approach the proximity issue and to reach people at the right time for them to take action.


The point of this piece (and I think all of the cited pieces) isn’t to say that social is a poor vehicle for word-of-mouth. What I do mean to suggest is that rudimentary measurements of social influence may give a false impression of how effectively influencers can operate in that channel.

What I meant to do was to demonstrate how a potentially large audience could be decimated by actual influence, peer group, content, modality and timeliness. I also didn’t mention social reach, but it is an impediment on Twitter and on Facebook (as well as other platforms).

Communication and marketing professionals should understand the complexities and challenges of social networks when trying to leverage influencer campaigns. Especially for Facebook with its ad options, paid promotion and even advertising may be helpful to complement campaigns. And of course social listening and recommendation tools such as the Cision Social Software help to overcome some of the limitations of social platforms.

Social Media Listening

Images via Pixabay: 12, 3, 4, 5

Tags : social media

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About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.