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 Falcon.io, 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.

Privacy in the Age of Big Data

Consumers reveal more than ever before consciously through social media and, just as importantly, unconsciously through their behaviors. This data gives marketers great power, which they can use to design better products, hone messages and, most importantly, sell more by providing consumers what they want. That’s all good from a marketer’s perspective, but for consumers, the scope of data collection can often cross a line, becoming too intrusive or too loosely held. Marketers have to balance the opportunities of Big Data with the concerns of consumers or they risk a serious backlash.

Consumers reveal more than ever before consciously through social media and, just as importantly, unconsciously through their behaviors. This data gives marketers great power, which they can use to design better products, hone messages and, most importantly, sell more by providing consumers what they want. That’s all good from a marketer’s perspective, but for consumers, the scope of data collection can often cross a line, becoming too intrusive or too loosely held. Marketers have to balance the opportunities of Big Data with the concerns of consumers or they risk a serious backlash.

For some people, the line has already been crossed. When Edward Snowden revealed information about the government’s data collection policies, he presented it as a scandal. But, in many ways, what the NSA does differs mainly in scope from what many private marketers do. A German politician recently went to court to force T-Mobile to release the full amount of metadata that it collects from his cellphone behavior. The results highlighted just how much a company can know from this data—not just about an individual’s behavior and interests, but also about his or her friends, and whom among them are most influential. Even for marketers who strongly believe in the social utility that this enables, it highlights just how core an issue privacy has become.

So how can marketers get the most from data without alarming consumers? Transparency and value. For some consumers, there’s really no good use of personal data, so opt-outs have to be clear and easy to use. The best way to collect and use data is if the value to the consumer is so clear that he or she will opt in to a program.

One company that has framed its data collection as a service that’s worth joining is Waze, which Google recently bought for over a billion dollars. Google beat out rivals Facebook and Apple because high-quality maps are one of the most important infrastructure tools for the big mobile players. Well, before Google bought the company, CEO David Bardin said, “Waze relies on the wisdom of crowds: We haven’t spent billions of dollars a year, we’ve cooperated with millions of users. Google is the No. 1 player. But, a few years out, there’s no excuse that we wouldn’t pass them.”

Drivers sign up for the app to find out about traffic conditions ahead; inherently useful information. Once they’re logged in, they automatically send information about their speed and location to Waze. Waze invites active participation, too, encouraging users to fix map errors and report accidents, weather disruptions, police and gas stations. Users get points for using the service and more points for actively reporting issues. With 50 million users, this decentralized data entry system is incredibly efficient at producing real-time road conditions and maps. Even Google’s own map service can’t match the refresh speed of Waze maps.

Points for check-ins don’t fully explain why people are so invested in Waze. Dynamic graphics help, with charming icons and those de rigueur 3D zooming maps. Even more important than a great interface, however, is that Waze serves a real-time need while making users feel part of a community working together to solve problems. Waze is part of a broader movement to crowdsource solutions that rely on consumers or investors who believe in the mission of a company, not just its utility. People contribute to Waze because they want to help fellow travelers, as well as speed their own journeys. It’s shared self-interest.

Waze has a relatively easy task of proving the worth of a data exchange. Other companies need to work harder to show that they use data to enhance user experiences—but the extra effort is not optional.

As marketers become better at using data, they will need to prove the value of the data they use, and they need to be transparent on how they’re using it. If they don’t, marketers will have their own Snowdens to worry about.