Silverpop - Breaking Dunbar’s Ceiling: Sustaining Millions of Relationships Online with Marketing Automation
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Breaking Dunbar’s Ceiling: Sustaining Millions of Relationships Online with Marketing Automation

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by: Todd McCormick (@TMcCormick2011)
21 February 2013

In the early 1990s, University of Oxford professor Robin Dunbar argued that it's difficult, if not impossible, to manage more than 150 social relationships. After that cap, he said, it’s hard to maintain quality one-to-one relationships without diluting your connections. Does this maximum apply to social media today? (Read a recent Forbes article that explored this question and Dunbar’s original theory for more.)

This is an important question, given the critical nature we all know relationships have in governing business. Is it possible that you dilute your interpersonal effectiveness — and thereby your sales results — every time you add a social contact?

Redefining Relationships
Dunbar’s theory might have worked well when people sent snail mail and called one another. But today, the definition of a relationship has evolved: social tools, email and text messaging help us maintain relationships that are active when we want them to be, and passive the rest of the time. Have we beaten Dunbar’s number, as Chris Brogan has argued?

I might not go as far as Brogan, but I do agree that massive networks and databases don’t necessarily mean weak connections. How many “friends” have you read updates from on Facebook without commenting? You’re still in the loop with what’s happening, even if you didn’t actively engage.

In other words, it’s likely that Dunbar’s theory may need to evolve with the times, given the rapid rise of social media as well as today’s email marketing and behavioral marketing automation tools and strategies.

Either way, the principle is clear: Whether your customers can maintain a finite or unlimited number of relationships, it’s essential that you deliver the most relevant, personalized content possible. This delivery, of course, can only occur if it’s powered by the right tools and strategies — whether manually or via automation. Here are five I recommend:

1) Seek out ways you can better harness social. Use a social media tool like Hootsuite to track keywords and hashtags to stay on top of who’s discussing what. You can also gather highly personalized information through social sign-in. If you offer visitors the option of registering on your site with their Facebook login, for example, you can glean basic data, like a contact’s birthday, gender and location.

2) Use progressive Web forms to develop more robust profiles over time. Start by asking for a nominal amount of information for visitors to get your white paper, for instance, then ask for a little more the next time they’re on your site. You’ll stop annoying prospects with your 15-line data forms. (Read more on progressive profiling.)

3) Convert your social followers to the email channel. Silverpop recognizes that you can personalize far more than 150 relationships — with email marketing automation. On such a platform, you aren't limited at all by scope. In fact, our customers have millions of unique, 1:1 conversations via email every day. Maintain these relationships by monitoring and responding to what your buyers are doing online. For example, if someone comments on a blog, reviews a product on your company website, or checks into your store on Foursquare, trigger an email that specifically responds to that action. (Get ideas for adding social followers to your database.)

4) Unleash the power of behavioral marketing. While the most robust, automated personalization frequently takes place via email, there’s similar potential in personalizing Facebook forms (e.g., via Silverpop Landing Pages) and setting up automated Tweets in response to check-ins (e.g., via PlacePunch).

5) Customize messaging and dynamic content based on past customer behavior and interests. You can often anticipate a customer’s behavior based on past actions, and doing so will help you engage contacts more strongly and likely shorten your sales funnel.

You might not be able to go out and speak to hundreds of customers individually every day in person. However, with relationship-focused marketing automation, you can increase your network without diluting your efforts, enhancing existing relationships and building new ones — all with the personalized experience that today's buyers demand.

What do you think of Dunbar’s theory? Join the @Silverpop conversation on Twitter.

Related Resources:
1) Tip Sheet: “10 Ways to Make the Case for Marketing Automation
2) Blog: “Behavioral Marketing: What It Is and Why It’s So Exciting
3) Video: “Growing Your Database Through Social and Mobile Channels




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