The Power of Small Groups in Online Marketing

In 1910, Harold Peck Gould graduated from the University of Michigan just as the efficiency movement was becoming the leading new philosophy of the business world.  By 1913, Gould became the publisher and the editor-in-chief of the magazine “Efficiency”, later named “100%”. By 1916, even Gould’s alma mater along with most other major business and engineering schools included scientific management in course offerings.

While “Efficiency” may have been its most visible publication, The H.P. Gould Company was also providing specialty publications for businesses, not unlike the research reports that companies like N M Incite publish today.  That company, N M Incite, was the result of a coming together of McKinsey and Company, and The Nielsen Company.  And it was at H.P. Gould that Arthur C. Nielsen, the founder of The Nielsen Company got his start in field research.

After three years at H.P. Gould, Nielsen borrowed $45,000 from some college buddies and embarked on his own business venture. Nielsen’s background was engineering – and in the beginning, most of the projects at the fledgling company were focused on industrial research.  Over time, though, the company offered more consumer related research.

In 1936 Nielsen learned of a device, the Audimeter, which could record when a radio was turned on and to what station it was tuned. Nielsen acquired the rights to the device, and by 1942, had started the Nielsen Radio Index; by 1950 the Nielsen Television Index.

Since that time, marketers have turned to the Nielsen Ratings to help them in their media planning. And incidentally, by 2009, The Nielsen Company employed some 36,000 people worldwide, with total revenues of nearly $4.8 billion.

For decades, marketers have been condition to be concerned with the size of their audience. It makes sense: the more people reached, the more become aware of the brand, and the more people will purchase the brand’s products.

And Along Comes Social Media Marketing

Along comes social media marketing, and marketers are, of course, still concerned with the reach of their messages. How many followers do we have on Twitter? How many “friends”, or “likers” on Facebook? If we post a message in social media, how many pairs of eyes will eventually receive that message?

  • 46% of Internet users worldwide interact with social media on a daily basis
  • 5.2 hours per month on average spent by US visitors to social networking sites (Source: comScore)
  • 1,000,000 Facebook Fans bring in an average of 826 Likes and 309 comments per post (Source: Simplify360)
  • 4.9 is the average number of clicks on a link shared via Twitter, ranking it ahead of Facebook (4.3 clicks) and email (1.7 clicks) (Source: ShareThis)
  • 15% of social media users are more inclined to buy from brands that advertise in social media
  • 25% are more likely to find out more about brands that advertise on social media sites
  • 67% more likely to buy a brand they follow on Twitter
  • 79% more likely to recommend a brand they follow on Twitter
  • 18% of new content found online is found through social media
  • Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn increased by 100% their registered users in just 12 months

This was just a smattering of the great news to be found on the web. There has also been some bad news, such as the recent announcement that only 10% of a page’s Facebook fans will ever return to that page.  Or that more than half of all tweets are generated by around 20,000 individuals. A LOT of people have signed up, but have gotten “Facebook Fatigue”, or simply aren’t participating.

Playing around with Tweetreach (thankyou Josepf Haslam), I put my own Twitter handle into the search and discovered that with my past 50 tweets, I had reached 39,282 people, and that there were 75,897 impressions. While that is flattering in a way, I really question the notion that my Tweets were actually noticed that many times.  Very few of us read each and every tweet in our streams – instead, we dip in every now and then, or pay attention to certain search terms.

I’m sure that the numbers are based on what might seem like some reasonable assumptions – that I have a certain amount of followers, and that certain tweets were retweeted a certain amount of times to other bunches of followers.  But even more than billboards or magazine impressions, the assumptions around them being noticed just don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Attention economy

“… a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” – Herbert Simon

Of course, old media suffered from similar issues.  Sorry, Mr. Nielsen, but we really didn’t know if someone got up during the commercial and went off and made a batch of JiffyPop.  At the end of the day, we knew if there was an increase in sales. If we could afford the research, we could determine if there was an increase in awareness.

When it comes to social media, what if we were to change the game a bit?  What if instead of trying to build up armies of followers, who aren’t really paying attention to our messages, we focused on engaging micro-groups.  I once had a client who told me that if they reached the right 10 people in the United States, our work online would be a success (and it was!).  This is something we see in B2B marketing quite often. But how about in B2C? What if we focused on really GREAT interactions with a very small group, and allowed the messages to flow naturally out of that group?

Recently, on one of the blogs I regularly follow, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu  posted a blog post about language in social media that received over 25 comments in about a week.  Not only were there comments, though, but considered and often deep parts of a discussion that Kevin then replied to (each and every one) – bringing the conversation even deeper.  What started as post of 1,150 words ended up being over 10 times that!

Many of Kevin’s older blog posts only received a few comments. What seems to have happened is that he has stepped up his interactions with others on Twitter.  He’s a master of engaging with people across several platforms, so that when he writes a blog post, he’s able to bring those conversations there, as well.

There is a world of difference to being a member of a grouping, and the formation of a group, and then again, a whole other world of the “community”. When a person uses social media to have conversations with other individuals, then brings those individuals together in discussion, they are creating a group.

American Psychologist Bruce Tuckman created a theory of group formation base on four stages of group development:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing

Are these ideas relevant in the creation of groups within social media for the purpose of marketing?

Recently, there has been some press about the validation of Dunbar’s number in Twitter.  Research suggests that there are limits to how large our cohesive social network can grow, even in Twitter.  You might have 5,000 followers, but the data shows that real conversations happen within a smaller group of 100 to 200 people.  Of course, brands can have many individuals working on a social media account – so are brands similarly constrained?

As marketers, why should we even really care about the formation of groups or cohesive social networks? Well, if our job is to broadcast information outward with the hopes of it “being amplified”, and having “more reach”, maybe not – except that within groups, those functions might happen more easily.

But if we are not just thinking about broadcasting, the groups and networks start to make a lot more sense. We can become part of helping to create change – which in the end, is the reason to even be in a group.

Here’s the beautiful part: if as marketers, we put our big question in terms of how we can effect change – and I’m not just talking about the change to our sales figures, but to some bigger issue that relates to the passion points behind our brand – we could be a part in group and community formation, and be part of something greater.

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31 comments on “The Power of Small Groups in Online Marketing

Jenn Deering Davis

This is a great post, Ric! I particularly like your idea of focusing on targeted groups instead of just how many total followers you have. It makes a lot of sense to think about reaching a smaller, but more relevant audience. Social media should be about engaging as well as broadcasting.

I’m a co-founder of TweetReach and wanted to add a quick explanation of the metrics you cite here (and thanks for the shout-out, by the way!). Our reach metric is the number of unique Twitter accounts that received tweets about a topic (in this case, your Twitter handle). It’s not an approximation, but an actual count of unique account deliveries. Reach is meant to provide context around a topic’s potential audience size and doesn’t try to estimate how many people read or interacted with a tweet. Reach is most useful when viewed with another engagement metric like retweets, replies or clicks and when tracked over time. If you understand the size of your potential audience, then you can start to understand how your content is spreading, what’s working and what isn’t.

    Ric Dragon

    Hi Jenn;
    Thanks for the clarification – big help. You’re right; that number is critical. I wonder if we can get any approximation of real audience. Have you guys seen or done any studies?

Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

Once again a beautiful narrative woven with deep thought. As you might guess, I’m very much in favor of your concept of “the real conversation”. We want to find, and when not “find”, produce ‘the real conversation”. In other words, the conversation that matters. This involves identifying people that care. The machine gun/shotgun method of number sweeping not only is terribly inefficient not to mention deceptively self-satisfying, even if we end up hitting a few great finds we are not in the mental position to actually take advantage of it when we do. Those that do not have their eye on small groups, and instead on are number stacking, simply don’t have the trained capacity to substantively respond to the one great person that all their blog titles and RTs might happen to produce. This is what is at risk in the numbers culture of metrics, the loss of our sensitivity to what matters, what is golden in social media.


    Ric Dragon

    So, Kevin, here’s the rub; how CAN we, as marketers, create projects where we focus more on the quality of the small groups? Is it just a matter of convincing our clients? Or perhaps it could work if we divided up the work – allowing part of it (especially if its team-based) to build the large groups – and allowing another team to focus on the deep-dive connections. Just musing….

      Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

      Wow Ric, first of all I wasn’t getting notifications, so I apologize for the delay.

      I agree, there is no pure reason (other than the question of resources) why we can’t do both – macro and micro, quantitative and substantive – but I will say that whatever paths we pursue will shape our conception of the problem and our design of the solution. When we look primarily for quantified gain, especially in the Social Media realm at this point, that becomes the terms in which we frame the whole quaesita. And we can get lost in an Impression-oriented sense of achievement, which means much less than the 2 or 3 people we found this week.

      As to “how can we”, well the very idea that there is a universal “how” to this perhaps hinders us because each brand, each company has a different kind of potential passion base. It can be like asking “how do we find wildlife in the woods” instead of a specific species. Some general rules like “Don’t make a lot of noise!” may apply, but each company base can require very different sorts of processes.

      Your segmentation idea seems like a good informational start, but I feel that it requires “trackers” in the Dersu Uzala sense. A social media marketing team has to learn how to read the ground, see the marks of real social investment.

      One of the things that might help – and you know my growing thought on the matter – is if social media marketers themselves used social media in a way that was far more transparent. Realizing that we are already including the subjects of our conversation in the conversation itself might give rise to a much more socially aware kind of planning.

    Ric Dragon

    We’re in agreement about the need to focus on micro segments – but I’m not as quick to deprecate the importance of metrics. If we don’t measure, how can we improve? More importantly, how can we create small loops – how can we reorient – if we haven’t observed. I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with the numbers, although I’d agree that we need to identify the RIGHT numbers!

      Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

      I just don’t want “metric substitution”. I think a lot of times when we don’t have the golden ROI of CPC, people who are stuck in a “we gotta have metrics” mind, just substitute other numbers, like Impressions because they look good on reports, can be bloated, and speak the right language. I’m all about hard-core CPC, if we can get there, one of my paths to social media was from AdWords which has this extreme advantage.

      I regularly seem to see, even among very respected social media pros, when talking about ROI a subtle shift away from real ROI to vague implication of effectiveness, stacking “reach” numbers together. I’m pretty sure they are selling the stuff to clients, and guru-acolytes too.



This was a great post and I agree with you wholeheartedly on this. Interaction with people is essential; but it takes a lot of time to craft these ideas into words that people can relate to; and also builds the validation that they are being heard.

Constructive feedback is a dynamic that not just keeps each other going, but also builds increasingly upon a topic and learning to engage and see other people’s perspectives.

I think it’s an interesting take to have two teams target two different groups of people – but from a branding perspective, depending on how outreach is done; it can also be detrimental if people catch on. If the Nielsen/SM reach is to be taken into account, it may be an extremely strong core of a small quantity of followers (which you run at risk of having that limited niche market) or at least an above average group of a decent size of followers; where you do have those 2/3 zealous brand lovers which get to amplify it to different groups/thought leaders.

Thanks for sharing ric

    Ric Dragon

    Hi Chris; thanks for the comment! Great to see you here :-)
    So; with the 2-team idea; I was thinking that its not so much about going after connections with different groups or audiences – but just a different depths. So; one team might be responsible for a certain level of social media interaction, while another team could be focused on deeper conversations with your zealous brand (or thought area) lovers.

    Now, just thinking about the “Fiskateers” in conversation with Kevin – and that Fisker created the platform for which the brand ambassadors could speak. That’s another approach, yes?

      Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu


      What is nice about your altitude approach is that discoveries on the ground (for instance), can then be checked against quantitative trends. An example I might give from Tonner Dolls from this week is that we found an RC model plane enthusiast who discovered that our dolls fit perfectly in the scale of his airplanes. Is there a conversation already being had about this that we need to find? Is there a way to start this conversation if there isn’t? This is pure “small group” investigation.

      But then again there may be large level dynamics that would influence this on the ground effort. What is the state of the model RC plane industry? Growing or shrinking? What is the demographic? And countless other possible snap shots. Are there impression-type advertising we could do to assess that market?

      My own bias is actually against these large scale attempts to measure. In these cases what we really want to do is come in touch with real persons. We want actual conversations. The rest of the high-altitude stuff I suspect is in some part driven by the need to appear sophisticated, data-driven, $$ getting before clients. It does provide information, maybe even valuable information, but nothing like getting right in there and talking with people. I say: start with content, end with content, and let the big picture map of measurement simply guide you.

        Ric Dragon

        We’ve had some interesting successes, too – with some one-on-one interactions. Makes me think we need to start building up a library of cases so that when we’re talking with clients, we can demonstrate the nature of what we’re setting out to achieve. And on the numbers thing again – how are we going to measure?

        I current work we’re doing, we talk about x amount of interactions with influencers – that we want x amount to, perhaps, blog about us, get involved with commentary (like what we’re doing right now), etc.

          Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

          I think that is a great idea, the library of cases. It also might help you begin to think through the commonalities of all of them. Just organizing these things affects our design/problem solving. Plus discussing examples with clients might spark their own minds about the kinds of connections we are looking to achieve.

          As to measurement, you’ve mentioned your segmentation labor quotas. Not a bad idea, but I would also worry that when teams are carrying out such quotas, they can and will become desensitized to qualitative actions. Co-investments. Is 5 influencers blogging about us this week really, and I mean really a worthy goal? Except from just an SEO stand point (a valuable thing), I might trade your 5 influencer blog posts for just 1 fantastic blog post followed up by emails, comments, and my own reblogging of it. When we set these kinds of metric quota on “success” we often stop thinking beyond the numbers once we reach them, especially when hard numbers like ROI CPC are not available. It can be like moving the goal posts closer.

          It is like fighting a John Boyd battle and saying in advance: “We want to take 5 hills in the next month, I don’t care which 5!” There is a point to that, but it can result in real strategic disengagement (I fear).

          I would rather talk about “where” each of the influencers is “at” with us, and where we want to get them to, instead of counting abstract actions, if I had to say it generally.


Interesting! I think what makes it really difficult is to find people who are SERIOUSLY PASSIONATE about the topic at hand who is also adept at social media.

This will not be a future in the next 5-10 years; but more of a matter of #now as the upcoming generation will be so well integrated with SM.

Fiskateers is definitely an interesting approach for crowdsourcing; but a little discriminatory?

Karen Sharp

There’s something inchoate I’m trying to articulate here, about the relationship between conversation and community. Ric’s last paragraph points at it too. Because a community is more than a bunch of people thrown together having a conversation. It’s something else above and beyond the conversation, that the conversation is the result of, not the cause of.

I think that’s one of the essential contributions mavens make. They’re more than just multiply-connected nodes in the network, because they help bring the network — the community — into being, itself.

For these reason’s I’m intrigued by your reference to Bruce Tuckman, and I’d think that yes, explorations into community development may indeed make a contribution to an understanding of social media marketing.

    Ric Dragon

    Thanks, Karen. There is much about this blog post of my that is inchoate! A lot of ideas are swimming in my head. As I started to think about group formations (via Tuckman) – I realized I was probably just thinking about small networks – not groups so much in that sense – as groups are formed in order to do something… but that then brought the ideas in another place.
    Now, community development is awhole other topic. I think it’s a word bandied about in marketing a lot – at least in the sense of “community management” or “community development”.
    M. Scott Peck had some interesting ideas about community formation that I want to dig into (

      Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu


      These marketing “bandied” words have to stop being passed around so much – I am thinking of not only terminology, which does not bother me so much, as the senseless repeat of catch words in “advice column” posts people stuff their blogs with over and over.

      Please, I say, either take these truisms seriously such as you and Karen are, and think about how to really construct and inspire, or give them up and find new and better words.

      (my little rant.)

        Ric Dragon

        I’m not quite ready to give up “community” – think it bears some deep looking. And I wouldn’t worry – doesn’t seem to me that anyone involved in this discussion is guilty of those “10 Ways to Get More Twitter Followers” type of posts!

Sid Sudiacal

Great post Ric! From a theological perspective, the idea of small but truly engaged group has been the main method of spreading the message of Christ to the world. 12 men started to interact and engage with others in an attempt to form communities that would also follow in their footsteps. Considering that Christianity now has approximately 1 billion plus adherents, I think it’s safe to say that small groups can actually change and establish cultures and trends. There is great power in small groups that most of us have failed to realize and capitalize on.

    Ric Dragon

    Thanks, Sid, for the comment. I’m feeling like I want tp put more flesh on this whole idea- you’ve provided some inspiration, thank you.

      Sid Sudiacal

      You’re welcome. Glad to help inspire you. Looking forward to your future developments of this idea. You are definitely on to something here =)

Pam Ross

I love the continuation of this discussion. Great thoughts here Ric! The more I think about this, the more I’m drawn to Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”, and the people who help create change or can cause a Brand to ‘tip’. If you could create a community of ‘mavens’, ‘connectors’ and ‘salespeople’, a small group of them could grow your business (as long as your product is valuable). This is a great book if you haven’t read it.

I’m not sure how tribrr works, but I think communities like that start to have some of these qualities, but not all.

What I’ve seen from the #usguys tribe in my short time interacting with the group shows that perhaps informal groups like this may be one answer, as long as the right people are in the tribe.

This has inspired me to blog about my experience with this and how I have seen the power of a small group (or one person with Gladwell’s qualities). I’ll post it over the next few days.

    Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

    It is really interesting Pam that you and I both came to think of Gladwell’s Tipping Point in response to Ric’s post. But I actually took things like Triberr to be something *possibly* diluting of the true group/conversation base of social media:

    The #usguys tag is perhaps a very interesting mix of some gamed social media (the high-quality traffic draws it) and a great resource of conversation in depth and investment. I think it safe to say that without #usguys I would not have met perhaps 80% of my most valued conversation mates, include Ric himself. I think #usguys has some Gladwell written all over it.

Gary Mort

Metrics metrics metrics. I admit I’m a data geek and I find it interesting that much of social networking data is not mined. And what is mined is not really mined at levels I care about. Internet data generally looks for trends and patterns in hundreds of thousands of points of data. Ad rates are based on CPM. This is great for large social media metropolis’ such as NYC. But when you move into the more minor areas[Google reports under 7000 searches for "mid hudson valley" a month...and while honestly while all venues in this region should care about are searches from NYC, at - for 7000 searches we're talking a few bucks a month to put your ad there. How many ads are there? 0. And one reason is because at 7000 searches, the click through rate is going to be low low low.]

But since you can link all that click through data to sales and contact data – it should be a no brainer to collect that data and then make it meaningful. If you have a mere 70 clickthroughs, the rate looks bad[70/7000 = 1%] – but if out of that 70, for a bed and breakfast, 1 person reserves a day and 10 people ask to be contacted, your doing great. That’s when you need to start assigning values to reservations and contacts, figure reservations are worth 25$ and contacts are worth 5$, so thats 75$ of value for under $5 of advertising.

The data is easily collected these days – so you can determine if your reaching those 10 all important people or not.

A good example of looking at the right metric is PhotoJojo. They send out email campaigns, and the traditional rate of effectiveness there is open rates and click throughs – because those are the people saw the advertisement and who were likely to buy the product, plus the people who clicked through who were likely sales.

But their click through and sales rates stink. But then they looked at how many times their EMAIL newsletter was being tweeted about…because tweets are, in truth, recommendations of a product to all the tweeters friends. Newsletters with high retweet rates led to high sales.

Also when addressing small communities, it’s important to consider focus. Having 30 people talk about the wonderful artwork on display at Half Moon Books: is nice. But if each one does so on a different day of the month…well, it’s lost in the social media noise. But get those 30 people to post a couple days ago about first saturday[tomorro] and the wonderful artist who will be on display then – well, that is meaningful. That is creating buzz and pushing it at the right time. And this is highly beneficial to every shop in uptown kingston – though admitedly most beneficial to Half Moon.

So a goal of social media is not to promote yourself, but to promote your neighbor since it promotes yourself at the same time. But even those local businesses who get social media are using it mainly to promote themselves. The power of the small group is to work together to support each other, and thus support themselves at the same time.

    Ric Dragon

    Thanks, Gary, for that robust comment! By the way; I’m a BIG FAN of Half Moon – have added many books to my library from there. And who can help but to get a warm feeling in their heart to know there are still people who dream enough to have a used book store!?!

    I have some real strong hunches that if these local businesses of uptown Kingston and environs were to all become REALLY involved with social media, it could collectively help to draw more people to the area’s businesses, and get more involvement from current patrons. It sounds like you’re doing your share to help – if so, keep it going!

    Also; you might let people know about the #140 Conf we’re sponsoring on August 23rd at Backstage… It’s going to be a day full of speakers about how social media can help transform.

Ashley Drewes

Great post. That’s exactly how I think of promoting my small biz because I want to get locals (theh small group) engaged – I don’t want to sell to people in Norway (though I have) because it’s not sustainable. I don’t want to get lost in a see of similar businesses – or worldwide tweets – reaching out to people that probably will never walk in my door.

    Ric Dragon

    Ah! Just being reminded of vintage clothing brings me back! When Jen and I were dating back in college (1983!) – some of our favorite dates were to the vintage clothing shops around Portchester. And now I’m hearing my 14-year-old son and his friends talking about vintage clothes – and how great they are. I’ve got to be sure to tell them about your shop in Saugerties.

    Which also suggests that, yes, there are a lot of micro-groups that you have the opportunity of reaching, and who will probably be thrilled to know about you! Thanks for the comment, Ashley!

Josepf Haslam

Dear Twitter Associate located among my 6000+ followers, you go by Ric, is that right?

Dunbar’s number certainly is validated, in my opinion. Also Dr. Murray Bowen (deceased) would have a lot to say about Twitter. We, as social animals, get increasingly stressed with Density.

It seems that we have perceptually filters that are still hardwired to some extent to certain small group sizes. Which, BTW, is a brilliant implementation in Google Plus.

We have to group or cluster people in increasing less connect rings of influence (think Meet the Fockers) in order to maintain emotional health.

Now, with that said, some of us, have a great facility to cross connect, span groups, and serve as communication linkages. In the SoMe world we might call them Brand Advocates. The elusive champion who opinion is actually sought after.

The Business owner, larger and small, want to find, and then nurture the Brand Advocates. Talking with 200-400 of them by definition brings along a multiplier of 300-500. There are of course second order affects, or ripple affects from the next circle out. Let’s all agree that the less connected you are the less impact or weight your message probably carries?

Those who stop broadcasting, and start building these smart networks will win. Always give away the why…but sell the how…so I must stop here.

best regards,

    Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

    Josepf, Cheers. Sometimes the best way to explain “Why” is to give away the “How”. Doing is knowing, I would say.

Ric Dragon

So much information in one small comment! Thanks for the intro to Bowen. What he says about triangles validates a strong feeling I had growing up as a third child :-)
And what you say about connectors – well, we’ve just got to pull the old “Tipping Point” off the shelf, try to remember who last borrowed it from the DragonSearch library, or buy a new copy – all just in time, because it sounds like Kevin has toted his copy out as well.

And if we take Gladwell at his word, we’ll need to consider the other crucial change agents beyond the “connectors” – the mavens and salesmen. Perhaps I’m not thinking straight, though, to think of “Tipping Point” as a prescription – but it does have me thinking about how if we work to create REALLY AWESOME small groups – we then have the time to consider the nature of the participants.

The question emerging for me, Josepf, in this post and the ensuing comments, is whether as marketers we shouldn’t place less emphasis on reaching all of those influencers out there (for a particular brand), and place more emphasis on building out a smaller more active group. It would require some faith, yes?

    Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

    Ric: “The question emerging for me…is whether as marketers we shouldn’t place less emphasis on reaching all of those influencers out there (for a particular brand), and place more emphasis on building out a smaller more active group”

    Me: This is it. Of course it is case by case, but in general it seems that this kind of segmentation is largely overlooked in the metric-drenched social media approach. It is Boyd all over again. Mobile, autonomous, active groups loosely linked crossing the market space. It seems a question of scale. It isn’t about one influencer (we begin there) and not about thinly reaching out to an array of influencers. It is about – imo – empowering influencer groups, changing their capacity to act and communicate, mobilizing them.

    I might want to inspire 1 influencer to be a blogger rather than broadcast my message to 10 influencers already blogging.