Social Media and the Marketer’s Monkey Sphere

Can you make personal connections at scale? The average human’s social sphere is limited to about 150 people, everyone else is just a monkey. And if you can’t deliver the experiences to make those connections, your brand’s just a monkey too.

There's a reason so may companies plan to compete on experience. If you don't break through and make that connection, you're just a monkey.
Slide from Jillian Falconi’s deck for the webinar “Social Media Marketing That Counts: How to grow your audience with insights that impact the bottom line,” airing June 2.

Can you make personal connections at scale? It’s the marketing question of our time.

Since blogging and social networks made the Internet the two-way communication medium it is today, Americans have paid less and less attention to mass communication and more and more to personal social bubbles around the things they care about.

Even when the thing they care about is a mass communication phenomenon, like Game of Thrones, their interaction with mass media is only as long as that event (skipping commercials) and then it’s back to the bubble to talk about it with their friends.

How do you make them care about you when your marketing is one of the things they’re trying to avoid in that bubble?

You need to offer an experience. You need to become one of those things that has personal meaning.

You need to get inside the monkey sphere.

Are You a Brand or a Monkey?

Have you every heard of the Monkey Sphere? Also called Dunbar’s Number?

Robin Dunbar was an anthropologist who studied primates. He found that social group size corresponded to the species’s brain size. Each species could only handle so many social connections. Beyond that number, the rest of the primates ceased to be seen as discrete individuals. Everyone who didn’t fit inside that limited social sphere was just a monkey.

Using the same ratios, Dunbar figured that the average human’s personal social sphere — the people who you know by name, know how they connect with the other people in your sphere, and that you have ongoing social relationship with — is limited to about 150 people.

Everyone else is just a monkey.

The thing is, brands are monkeys too. There are the ones you identify with and talk about inside your sphere, and the rest are just monkeys.

The problem with being just a monkey today is when people build their online communities and media bubbles, the monkeys don’t get in. And you can’t buy your way in with more ads.

The only way to be more than a monkey is to create experiences that make personal connections with the people in your audience.

Can you do that? Can you do it a million individual times?

That’s the difference between broadcast media and social media. In the heyday of mass media, people were grateful to gather around the radio or TV and listen to whatever was broadcast. Today, your audience is overwhelmed by media streams, so they only listen to the people and brands who connect personally with them.

Making a personal, emotional connection is your only way inside the monkey sphere. And you need to get inside a million monkey spheres. How do you do it?

In fact, there’s another side to the question: How do you keep all of them from becoming just monkeys to you?

Pretty much everything worth doing with marketing technology relies on the idea that you can use all these individuals’ preferences, behavior and data to send them more relevant, personalized and effective messaging. The entire world of marketing automation, clouds and social listening tools rely on the idea that you can do that.

You can’t possibly expand your personal monkey sphere to encompass all of your customers, but you can’t treat them like just monkeys, either.

What Are the Answers?

I honestly don’t know. It’s a complicated, contradictory issue. But I’ll be moderating a webinar on Thursday, “Social Media Marketing That Counts,” with Michael Dub from DXagency and Jillian Falconi from, that’s a good place to start.

I don’ think either of them plan to mention Monkey Spheres, but these questions are at the heart of their presentations: How do you figure out a way to make those personal connections, and apply it at scale, across millions of customer if you need to?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but tune in tomorrow and you’ll hear some good ideas on how to approach them.

Author: Thorin McGee

Thorin McGee is editor-in-chief and content director of Target Marketing and oversees editorial direction and product development for the magazine, website and other channels.

2 thoughts on “Social Media and the Marketer’s Monkey Sphere”

    1. It’s a debated topic, but it’s also not central to the point. Whether the number is 50 or 500, marketers today are still competing for one of those spots, and they’re not easy to get.

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