Networking Math: Divide Dunbar's Number by 3

How to maximize your networking efforts by limiting yourself to 50 new contacts each year.

Photo: Pixabay

Photo: Pixabay

In the 1990s Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, developed a famous prediction from his theory that humans could have meaningful relationships with no more than 150 people at a time after he saw a correlation between primate brain size and the social groups they formed. In his TEDx talk from 2012 he explains how he came to this conclusion.

In the age of social media 150 friends might sound kind of low when you can have 5,000 friends on Facebook, unlimited followers on Instagram or Twitter, and LinkedIn stops showing how many connections you have when you exceed 500. Regardless of which platform you prefer, we are often not having meaningful conversations or spending time with all of the people we are connected to on social media. In fact, a 2004 study suggests that Americans are more isolated now than they had been in the 2 decades prior to the study citing "the number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled."

Dunbar goes on to describe that there are different layers to those relationships. You start with the 5 people closest to you and it’s likely that these are the people you would go to if you had a serious problem or needed support. Then he expands it to 15 people who you are pretty close with. Those 15 likely include your family and close friends. The next layer is 50 and then 150.

I propose that the number 50 is the tipping point for networking. Once you go beyond 50 people it is difficult to maintain a meaningful connection with those people because you have a finite amount of time to invest in building meaningful connections. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, if you are a recruiter and you spend the majority of your career making connections with people then you are more likely to be able to maintain more relationships because you have time during your workday.

Thanks to technology we can automate how we maintain the relationships that are most important to us and attempt to challenge Dunbar’s Number although it appears his research might actually be behind the way social networks are built. So maybe it is not an accident that Facebook decided to cap out your friends list at 5,000.

Here are the top 3 ways I have gone from knowing 2 people when I first moved to New York City to building a network of hundreds of interesting people in the last year:

  1. Be intentional about the types of people you want to meet and go to events that have a theme or a purpose other than general networking.
  2. Start a list of your top 50 and update it at the end of each year.
  3. Follow up with your top 50 at least once every 3 weeks. This means you will make at a minimum 7 impressions on them each year. The number 7 first became significant in the 1930s in the movie industry when studios discovered the amount of advertising and promotion that is required to compel someone to see one of their movies, later referred to as the marketing Rule of 7 by Dr. Jeffrey Lant.

What are your favorite ways of remembering to follow up with people and making time to do it? Please share your comments below, I learn just as much from you as you do from me.