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Virtual Interactivity and Dunbar’s Number

In interactive marketing, it is vital not only that your company’s message reaches its intended audience, but truly engages it as well. Recently, I came across a New Yorker article entitled “The Limits of Friendship,” by Maria Konnikova. In short, the article suggests that in an age influenced by rapidly expanding social media, we as a society may in fact be becoming less and less socially adept. While the number of social interactions we make is larger than ever due to social media, their respective values are diminished.

 

Dunbar’s Number

Frequently referred to in Konnikova’s article is an anthropological phenomenon known as Dunbar’s number. Proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar in the early 1990s, this number is a suggested limit to the number of people with whom an individual can maintain stable social relationships. Originally formulated during his studies on primates (make your own Planet of the Apes joke here), Dunbar’s theory became well-known once it was expanded to include humans. Dunbar suggested that for humans, the average number of relationships one can maintain is about 150, and that these 150 are organized in hierarchical social groups of decreasing size. There is the biggest group, some 75 to 100 acquaintances; then a step down, perhaps 35-50 casual friends; then another step down, about 15 close friends; then finally a circle of your five best friends.

Principles of Brand Loyalty

Extrapolating this information to the field of marketing, it isn’t hard to conceive that the way we think about brands might be similar.

Ask yourself—from how many brands do you own at least one product? Probably a lot—let’s say 100. From how many brands do you own two or more products? For me, a reasonable answer might be around 30. Three or more products? I think you see where I’m going with this.

To simplify, let’s ask a question that can be answered without spending hours counting items in your garage: how many brands do you truly feel loyalty towards? Brands for which the competitors’ products simply won’t do? Likely the answer is not more than three to ten—your closest circle of brands.

 

Staying Dunbar-Relevant

Then how can a brand stay Dunbar-relevant? In a 2010 study, Dunbar examined the phenomenon of social media, stating that “what Facebook does and why it’s been so successful in so many ways is it allows you to keep track of people who would otherwise effectively disappear.” Through use of social media, brands can do the same: they can stay present for customers who, frankly, might otherwise forget about them.

But obviously, merely staying present is not enough—and it takes something extra to enter a consumer’s hierarchy of brands they associate themselves with, and something spectacular to be considered among their top 50, top 15, or even top five. In Dunbar’s social hierarchies, there is a clear precedent for defining who enters these most prestigious social circles: engagement and interaction. In marketing, these same principles apply.

Thanks to the prevalence of social media, there are many tried and true ways to stay present and get your audience to virtually interact with your brand. What type of interaction it will be, however, has serious implications for whether that experience will last 15 seconds or 45 minutes. While analyzing your strategy, it is necessary to ask: is this virtual interaction a speech, or a conversation? A speech is one-way; a lesson for those who want to listen. A conversation is two-way; it is addressing, listening, responding, and actively taking into account the preferences and ideas of both parties involved.

 

The Value of Virtual Experience

When designing a virtual experience, it is necessary to keep in mind that the way in which you engage and interact with your user is imperative to how they will perceive your brand—it communicates your level of interest in the user as a real human being, your desire for their input, and your level of respect for them.

Virtual interactions are never going to be a 1:1 replacement for face-to-face interactions. There is arguably nothing more valuable than being able to sit down with another person and communicate directly. Dunbar, too, suggests that another person’s physical presence is integral to creating close personal relationships. In that regard, it is important not to let your virtual interactions supersede your in-person interactions.

But by understanding how to best utilize virtual interactivity, you may find yourself with many more opportunities for face-to-face interactions, as well as a public audience that is bigger, more engaged, and more knowledgeable than ever before.

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