At what point does an idea go viral?

At what point does a contagion become an epidemic?

Malcolm Gladwell posed this fascinating question in one of the breakthrough marketing books of our time, The Tipping Point.

Of the many findings that would be of interest to all marketers, the one that fascinated me is from British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar who came up with ‘The Rule of 150’, better known as Dunbar’s Number:

The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us – Robin Dunbar

In other words, if a group is smaller than 150, we feel a sense of community. Larger than that, we feel disconnected and ‘part of a crowd’.

The best conditions for something to go viral (an idea, a trend, or even a disease) is for it to take root within these groups of 150. If it does and one can rally the influencers (spreaders, change agents) of these groups of 150 together – you have an epidemic on your hands.

One of the hallmarks of Social Media is that Brands and influencers have thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of followers. Obviously this blatantly flies in the face of Dunbar’s Number, however digging deeper… how many of these followers actually feel like they’re genuinely part of a community?

For this reason I was fascinated when I recently read the epic 136 page slide deck on the future of tech and media from ex-Yahoo board member, Michael Wolf. Here, he analyses current trends and points to the future of social moving away from large platforms and towards smaller, private group messaging – towards Dunbars Number.

The two largest small group messaging platforms today are Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp – who together have over 1.6 *billion* users and are both owned by Facebook. Facebook was even the laughing stock of the tech community for paying $22b to acquire WhatsApp in 2013 – a company who had only made $20m in sales.

Joining the dots, in the past year Facebook has also been conspicuously adjusting course towards smaller groups – with significant resources being devoted to Groups and Rooms (both of which now have their own standalone apps so people can now be part of a group even if they don’t want to be part of the wider Facebook social platform).

And as we have seen time and time again, where people go, so too will follow monetising opportunities for the platforms and therefore marketing opportunities for brands.

How can brands make the most of Dunbar’s Number?

Deliver the Best for the Least for the Most.

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