SMALL NUMBERS

I just had lunch with a Facebook engineer and we were debating “network effects“. He was a super smart guy with an amazing notebook. You can tell a lot about someone from the way that they take notes…

networkeffects

 

When I was working with Facebook a few years back I was obsessed with “scale”, “network effects” and the laws of large numbers. Back in 2010 as Facebook opened up its platform to companies, I often found myself encouraging brands to invest in social media ads because of the scale, reach and relatively low cost of building an audience. Citing Dunbar’s number, I’d often suggest that people who only had 140-150 genuine connections within their friendship group, could (in a perfect world), reach 2.7M people within a three generations of shares (140 x 140 x 140). Of course the world isn’t perfect and Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm took care of much of that “reach”, but at the time I thought I was making a valid point. But in the back of my mind was a quote I heard from the co-founder of Airbnb at SXSW,

 

“Better to have 100 people LOVE you than 1M people kinda like you”. Brian Chesky (Airbnb)

 

There’s only one problem with the law of large numbers. They work if you’re Red Bull, Coke, Starbucks, Unilver or McDonald’s – they NEED to work if you are building an app (especially given today’s cost of development and distribution), but for the rest of us they are a huge distraction. Better to focus on 140 true fans, than the (meaningless) reach of 2.7M. Being one click away from 1.86Bn people certainly makes social media attractive to most businesses, but success lies within a community, not an engagement score. Large groups of people (where most brands are concerned) don’t mean a whole lot. But tribes of 140 working together can accomplish great things.

 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. Margaret Mead

 

I’ll never forget working at Adobe when we did a large “influencer” campaign. The agency in question targeted several influencers, and based upon their social scores and follower counts they tried to drum up business for one of our products though social selling. They had hundreds of thousands of followers between them, but you know who delivered the most value when we did the campaign analysis? A Japanese creative who was obsessed with Adobe but only had 500 followers on Twitter, yet despite that he drove creative cloud subscriptions of over $5,000 from one social media post. He had a small group of engaged creatives who loved his work. None of the agency lists or social listening tools at the time even had him in the top 500.

 

“Engaging with your fans and building a community are two totally different things”. Mitch Joel

 

So this brings me to the law of small numbers. On Mitch Joel’s podcast earlier this year, Seth Godin spoke about why he focused on small numbers. [Listen here]. The number 6 in fact. Seth thinks that people get scared by big numbers and large goals can become overwhelming, but it’s easy to forget says Seth, that six people can change the world. His theory? If you only inspire six people to change something within your lifetime (perfectly achievable surely), and they go on to inspire another six people….. within just over ten generations of that cycle you could have reached everybody on the planet. Six people.

* Seth also talks about “The First 10 People” – well worth a read.

 

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To round this out, let me finish with a short story I read in Tim Ferriss outstanding door-stop of a book “Tools of Titans”. (No matter what book is next on your reading list, change it to this one). In it, Tim is debating with Eric Weinstein, a superb chap who is the MD of Thiel Capital with a PhD from Harvard, and works in his spare time as a research fellow from Oxford University and the Maths Institute. In a hottub (!), Tim and Eric concluded that the key to success lies not in seeking general fame, but in going after 2,000 – 3,000 solid people who love what you do.

 

Fame is overrated” said Weinstein. What you actually want is to be famous to 2,000 to 3,000 people that you handpick. Mainstream fame he suggests, brings more liabilities than benefits, especially to business people. But if, for example, you are known and respected by a few thousand high-caliber people (eg. The live TED audience) you will be able to do pretty much everything that you ever want to do in life. That size of audience provides maximum upside and minimal downside.

 

“You can have everything you want in life if you just help enough other people get what they want”. Zig Ziglar

 

I totally agree. I have over 95,000 followers on twitter (mostly fake and bots) but of those, only about 2,500 of them are engaged followers who have some kind of a meaningful relationships with me. To me, my Twitter community are the 2,500 people who care about the same stuff I do, not the other 92,500 who just make me look like an “influencer“. To most people, I’m really not influential at all.

 

Going forward I think we (especially marketers) need two things:

  1. To use better software with algorithms which can accurately filter out the signal from all the noise, helping us to find the truly valuable people (in whatever context).
  2. To stop chasing large numbers, just because they look good on dashboards, Powerpoint slides and in an executive report.

 

Amen?

Evangelist @IBM • IBM Watson • Travel Around Talking about AI, Big Data and the Future of Marketing • Lover of Old Business Books and Good Bourbon • Based in London, UK.

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