Does human behaviour make the social web a retention game for brands?

Jul. 28, 2010 | by Simon Mustoe

I am mightily impressed by a recent presentation from Paul Adams, a senior user experience researcher at Google. Entitled ‘The real life social network’, it examines how people connect, relate and communicate with each other, and what this means for experience designers online.

As someone who works agency-side I started thinking specifically about what the implications of Paul’s observations of human social behaviour are for brands, especially those taking part in the social web. Intriguingly, it suggests that social media is a customer retention, not a customer acquisition, game.

Social ties

In his presentation, Paul discusses the established theory that human beings develop two types of connections – strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties are those people closest to us, such as best friends and family. Most people are unlikely to have more than six strong ties in their lives. Our weak ties are those we are less close to but might be in infrequent contact with. It is believed that the limits of the human brain mean that the average person is not capable of staying up to date with more than 150 weak ties at any one time. We might know many more people but we simply can’t stay alert to them all.

What does this mean for brands in social media?

The implications for those who work in marketing are quite profound, but also incredibly useful. It opens up a new level of detail, and in some ways provides a reality-check, to the all-encompassing notion of engagement. It suggests there are limits to just how engaged with people a brand can be. Realistically, a brand is not going to make it into someone’s group of strong ties and should not try to do so. This group is incredibly small and reserved for those closest to us.

Equally, it means that judging Facebook success, for instance, by the amount of people who ‘like’ your brand is flawed. For many of the people who have ‘liked’ you, it’s highly possible that your brand still falls outside the 150 weak ties that they can keep up with. The social web has enabled us to expand our list of connections – people don’t limit their list of Facebook friends to 150 after all – but the human brain is no more able than it was before to deal with them all. And, significantly, Paul points out that Facebook users currently have 130 friends on average.

The limits of our ability to maintain any more than 150 weak ties also brings into question the value of campaigns that require you to ‘like’ the brand in order to take part, such as competitions. Here, you are creating one-off relationships that will be difficult to build upon.

Instead, it seems a more realistic, and strategically astute, decision to focus digital marketing efforts on making sure your brand is a valued weak tie in people’s social networks. This is even more sensible when we consider that if we can only ever handle 150 weak ties at any one time then each person’s ties are likely to be at capacity already. A quick look at the brands I have ‘liked’ on Facebook suggests that, other than those that have a work-related purpose, most are ones that I already had a connection with outside of my use of that site. It wasn’t their presence on Facebook that established the connection; the connection already existed.

What should the strategy be?

The suggestion here, as made by Paul in his presentation, is that social networks don’t actually enable the creation of additional connections, they just make our existing connections more visible to us. This of course somewhat belies the common marketing notion that there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people just waiting to fit your brand into their lives. In fact, for most people, their lives are likely to be full already.

The possible outcome of this, somewhat controversially, is that much of a brand’s effort in a social media space such as Facebook should be given to maintaining existing ties rather than establishing new ones; to forging deeper relationships with those people who are already positively predisposed to your brand.

Of course, social media activity is still likely to result in your brand creating some new weak ties – after all, our social ties are not static, permanent connections. That said, if it is predominantly a retention game then the likelihood is that you’ll have to be interesting enough to bump out an existing connection in order to enter someone’s network of weak ties. And of course, if you’re not proving to be interesting enough yourself then you might be the one that gets bumped out.

If all this is true then we are indeed in a relationship-based customer retention game, not a numbers-based acquisition one.

You can find Paul Adams’ original presentation, which provided the inspiration for this post, here. It’s lengthy, but in a good way, and comes wholly recommended.

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    Comments (6)

    • Philip Buxton

      Really like the spirit of the original sentiment and your take on it Simon. It makes wonder lots of things though:

      1. are you sure social networks don't actually allow the number of ties we can maintain much bigger? Commonly a friend who, otherwise, would be completely out of contact is connected with through Facebook (a liked shared video or comment or somesuch), enabling me to connect and reaffirm a tie that would otherwise have been lost

      2. Also, though fundamentally I agree that social networks allow you to connect with people you'd already be friends with, they also enable connections entirely exclusive to those networks. This is particularly true of Twitter (rather than Facebook) and was also true of online forums/message boards

      3. Are we sure we don't have a completely separate capacity to form ties with companies/brands outside friends? I'm thinking that, as well as 6 strong personal ties and 150 weak ones, I might also have 6 strong brand ties and numerous weak ones. Don't we compartmentalise in this way? And, therefore, aren't brands fighting to be one of the 6 strong brand ties (or 150 weak ones) rather than trying to wrestle pointlessly to be part of customers' personal networks?
      Jul 29, 2010 02:38 pm

    • Antony Mayfield

      Great post, Simon - thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Like you, Paul Adams's presentation really impressed me and has set all sorts of trains of thought rattling down their respective tracks.

      @Jeremy - I think the reason people like Fan numbers is it is an easy to understand number, when the reality of success is a lot more complex. Remember when you first starting using Facebook, or LinkedIn - a lot people think of it as a simplistic numbers game. Then things settle down, you get used to, maybe you go off it a bit, then come back, like some things and settle in to your social groove, as it were...

      In Me and My Web Shadow, I talk about the Dunbar number and then how we have many more connections than that in some social networks. How our social networks work doesn't change completely because of the web, but we are able to maintain connections with many more people than before. The people beyond the 150 magic number belong to category I talk about as your "latent network", the temporary ties of Paul Adam's analysis.

      What I'm not sure about is whether brands qualify as people and take up a slot in our Dunbar 150? Maybe they inhabit a similar, parallel type of social network. We have our handful of brands we really like and almost have a relationship of sorts with, there are those we like and maintain an emotional (and commercial) relationship with and then there are those in the outer circle that feel some connection with, but little else.

      Or maybe not. But it's an interesting perspective from which to consider things...Jul 28, 2010 07:51 pm

    • Trisha Brandon

      Good post, Simon. So the ROI may not have been fully figured out yet for the value of a 'like', but focusing on acquisition is missing something. I agree with you a tiny bit, Jeremy (though perhaps with less cynicism), that clicking 'like' is like giving a company your email address. It's the re-invented equivalent of opting into a daily/weekly email of tips, offers, content. It's a qualified connection that can be used (and abused) by brands just like any other type of communication. It's a re-framing of how companies have been connecting with their customers for years. But it's that re-framing (who, how, what language, how often) where many brands seem to be getting it wrong so far.Jul 28, 2010 07:00 pm

    • Jeremy Head

      I'd like to add in a more cynical marketing edge to this debate. If you think of social media as just another channel for pumping your message down, the act of liking a brand is not dissimilar to giving away your email address. From one hard-nosed point of view who cares whether that person actually feels any real engagement with my brand... they've given me permission to send marketing messages to them via their Facebook newsfeed and that's all I care about. I'm not condoning this idea of course, but this I think is why some marketers do make a big song and dance about how many fans they have for their brand's facebook page. It's old school thinking in a new media space.Jul 28, 2010 06:07 pm

    • Simon Mustoe

      Tamsin - it's an interesting question. I suppose the answer partly lies in whether 150 loose ties is an immutable law of human behaviour. If it is, then how we manage connections with 'strangers' on sites such as would still follow the same principle.

      In his presentation, Paul Adams introduces the idea of temporary ties - those people with whom we make a passing, transient connection. He gives a customer service representative as an example. These are also often the types of connections we make through a site such as - a brief note to someone saying 'I like this band too' or 'If you like that, try this'. And of course, over time, some of these people might become ongoing loose ties if there appears to be lasting value in the connection.

      My personal view is that whilst the contextual environment (online, this means website) might change, it is much less likely that human behaviour will change with it.Jul 28, 2010 04:31 pm

    • Tamsin Hemingray

      I agree with this analysis of our connections from a Facebook point of view. I think it's interesting when you start getting into looking at communities that form around specific interests - eg and music - where it's much more common to make new connections with people you don't know from Adam.

      When I first started getting active in online communities (some time ago, I admit) I made several new connections with people who quite quickly jumped into my top 6 (temporarily in most cases) but then settled down into my 150.

      It feels like those kinds of connections / online communities aren't being looked at very closely at the moment, because Facebook is so dominant. But I wonder if they will have more influence over time?Jul 28, 2010 04:05 pm

    Please note: the opinions expressed in this post represent the views of the individual, not necessarily those of iCrossing.

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