Facebook: Why We Friend [Research]

Before Facebook, we defined a friend as someone we knew in real life that we liked and trusted, excluding sexual or family relations. Social media has changed these interpersonal relationships and our understanding of the concept of friendship. Or has it?

The average American had two close confidants in 2004, down from three in 1985, a study published by the journal American Sociological Review in June, 2006, found. Further, 25% of Americans had no close friends or confidants. Concurrently there was an increase in dependence on family members and spouses.

Based on anthropological studies, Robin Dunbar proposed in 1992 that there was a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom someone could maintain social relationships. Specifically, these were people whom one knew individually and kept in persistent social contact. While the number has a range from 100 to 230, Dunbar’s number is considered to be 150.

While some Facebook participants have thousands of social media friends, the average number of friends is 130, roughly the Dunbar number. A deeper look at Facebook friendships, however, shows that Facebook is about having real-world relationships, according to Nielsen research.

Over 80% of participants friended someone they knew in real life and 60% added someone if they knew their friends (aka friends of friends,) according to Nielsen research. By contrast, when it comes to unfriending someone, 55% remove a friend for offensive language and another 41% will unfriend someone because they don’t know them that well.

What does this mean for marketers?

From a user’s perspective, Facebook is about building and keeping real-life relationships alive. For 89% of those surveyed Facebook is important for maintaining family relationships, for 86% of those surveyed Facebook is important for finding and maintaining old friendships, and for 70% of those surveyed Facebook was for finding new friends. The bottom line for marketers is that members are on Facebook to engage with family and friends, not you! 

Entertainment and shopping are secondary reasons for using Facebook – but don’t get the idea that members are there waiting for you to deliver coupons and other useful content since this type of engagement tends to be 15 percentage points lower than family and friends. Therefore use Facebook primarily as a marketing channel for consumers to get what they want: customer feedback (positive and negative), product information, discounts and/or coupons, and entertainment. On social media platforms deliver what consumers want to keep your engagement going or they’ll unfriend you.

In light of this Nielsen data, friendship Facebook-style doesn’t appear that different from the old fashioned real-life version. It’s about relationships with people we know that are most important in our lives. For marketers, this translates to building relationships with prospects, customers and the public over time – not pushing your latest promotion.

What’s your perspective on Facebook as an extension of real-life relationships and how does this relates to your social media marketing.

Happy marketing,
Heidi Cohen


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