The Tipping Point: Don’t Automate Your Way to Apathy

social media birthdayRecently, a teenager told me that on her birthday, she spent nearly the entire day replying to social media communications from her vast array of friends and followers – her myriad digital relationships. With a tinge of regret, she shared that many of her “birthday wishes” resembled one another. She speculated that the websites and apps in question prompted the “friend” at the right time, and even offered a birthday message to send with a single click. It’s even possible that the message was completely automatic and generic.

Having a large number of relationships to be engaged with isn’t unique to teenagers – for recruiters, it’s their day job. As a superstar recruiter, you’re responsible for a multitude of relationships. In fact, some firms require recruiters to develop scores of new relationships every week. In just one year, the number of distinct relationships a successful recruiter is involved is in the thousands.   

Despite the natural gifts recruiters may have, there’s a known limit to be aware of, Dunbar’s number. Dunbar’s research, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in “The Tipping Point,” establishes a range for the typical number of stable social relationships a person can maintain. Dunbar projects this cognitive limit is between 100 and 250 relationships, with 150 being safe for the general population. Recruitment’s viability as a business depends on defying a modified version of Dunbar’s number.   

There are two well-known approaches to surpass Dunbar’s number and keep more than 150 relationships viable. Both rely on a strategy of making the relationship investment easy for the recruiter – one focuses on “when,” the other on the “what.”

Birthdays, Revisited

birthday tipping pointAlmost eight years ago, I was introduced to Jeremy Epstein, founder of consultancy Never Stop Marketing. What makes Jeremy remarkable is that he runs his relationship network at over 10 times the size of Dunbar’s 150 relationships. He maintains over 1,800 relationships per year – and he’s not even a recruiter or a sales guy. He just calls everyone on their birthday. He explained that his grandfather used to call and send cards to everyone, but Jeremy elected to scale that model – he picks up the phone. Despite Jeremy’s wisdom and impressive memory, he’s not remembering people’s birthdays randomly – he’s got them all catalogued. Every night, his call list is ready to go. He knows whom he’s calling, he knows what to say. Even if he didn’t say a word, the phone call itself says so much. Epstein’s number is 1,800.

Our aforementioned teenager’s friends, like Jeremy, have systems to help with who to reach out to and when – it’s the “what” that’s tripping them up. Before we judge the teenagers, we should take a look at ourselves. Teenagers aren’t the only folks prompted by a system and being influenced by the power of suggestion.

I recently ran a quick survey to learn more about the use of LinkedIn’s “Say Congrats” feature (and I wasn’t the only one who noticed this). The survey was open to my over 1,500 LinkedIn connections and work colleagues. We had just over 100 respondents.

I wanted to know:

  1. Are people actually using the button to “Say Congrats?”
  2. If not, why not?
  3. If so, do they use the default text or make the message their own?

I also asked if people had recently changed jobs, and if they did, as the recipient of congratulations, about their reaction – both to congratulatory messages in general and to the default text when used.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. In my sample, only 19 percent of the respondents never “Say Congrats.” Some of those who never congratulate are skeptical about social media, but most believe pressing “Say Congrats” feels hollow.
  2. The other 75 percent who are willing to “Say Congrats” – 57 percent admit to rarely or never changing the default text. One participant said, “I think of it as a Facebook like.”  

In a nutshell, a small group of people cast aside the call to action; a smaller group uses the call to action to invest further in relationships by consistently changing the default text (10 percent), but 75 percent of the respondents are willing to just push “Say Congrats.”

It all comes home when you ask people who recently changed jobs about their experiences with “Say Congrats:”

  1. Over 30 percent of recent job changers received more than 20 congrats
  2. When congratulated, over 69 percent felt positive; 31 percent felt indifferent
  3. When congratulated with the default text, 60 percent felt indifferent  
  4. 66 percent of folks who recently changed jobs said the congrats were “most” or “nearly all” default text

Automation Apathy

apathyThe data suggests we’re often clicking the buttons without feeling. “Say Congrats,” like a birthday, is a missed opportunity for building relationships. When we “go through the motions” of relationships (by accepting the default text), we all know it.   

With that in mind, I asked some of the respondents to share what made for meaningful congratulatory message:

  • Make it personal: Your tone animates your message. Offering an update of your own in addition to wishing a colleague well personalizes the moment.
  • Ask a question: Opening a conversation about the new position invites a conversation and a reinvigorated connection.

For recruiters, the key to achieving Epstein’s Number is his method – he’s ruthlessly organized and efficient while maintaining the personal connection. Put another way, he has engineered his process to minimize task switching (he makes calls sequentially). If we were to apply his scaling technique to “Say Congrats,” you might:

  • Spend an hour brainstorming a set of more personal congratulations messages
  • Store them in an online document for easy access anywhere
  • Expect to spend some copying-and-pasting to more effectively “Say Congrats” time periodically (weekly or monthly), ideally in a cheery mood. In some ways, you’ll have re-engineered your own default text.

To achieve Epstein’s Number, we need to approach the “when” and the “what” of communication as a form of relationship management with care, thought, intent, and efficiency. And whatever you do, don’t simply automate your way to apathy.

Jonathan NovichAbout the Author: Jonathan Novich is Vice President, Platform and Staffing Technologies for Bullhorn, which provides cloud-based CRM solutions for relationship-driven businesses. A staffing technology innovator, he has developed broad and deep product and technical experience consulting to staffing firms over the past 15 years. At Bullhorn, he directs product initiatives as the rapidly-growing CRM company continues to diversify its customer base. He graduated with honors from Princeton University, earning a Bachelor of Science in Engineering in Computer Science and a certificate in Operations Research. He can be found on LinkedIn.



  • derdiver

    Funny I read this today after having to delete from my LI inbox over 100 congratulations on your new job. SMDH


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