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Is Your Social Initiative the Chicken, or the Egg?

Communities are funny, organic, and slightly unpredictable organisms.  When they are robust and successful, they are amazingly powerful ways to communicate, collaborate, and produce results that can change the fundamental economic dynamics of a company and a market.  Why? Communities incorporate economic exernalities that don’t show up on corporate spreadsheets (except very generally as ‘goodwill’), but do have huge impacts on human behavior which in turn does lead to concrete economic outcomes.  Communities bind us socially to each other and interject the fundamental human motivations of reciprocity and fairness (if you are interested in this topic, Francois Gossieaux are Tara Hunt are great resources) and engage our empathy.  All of those social motivators can and do drive economic activity, but because they are so hard to ‘see’ and track, they are often ignored by large organizations that can only track transactional processes that can be easily measured.

Charlene Li has redefined, brilliantly, the calculation for Total Lifetime Value of the Customer in her new book, Open Leadership, by including the value customers contribute to a company not only in revenue, but in referrals, insights, support, and ideas. In most cases any recognition of the value customers contributed, other than revenue, is not tracked and only acknowledged in a sporadic and ad hoc way in the form of thank yous from specific employees. And while customers have learned not to expect anything significant in return for these contributions, it leaves the balance of value unsettled and a feeling by the customer that many of their legitimately valuable contributions don’t really matter.

The same observation could be made of employees.  Employee are paid for explicitly defined work that they do, but what about when they help plan the holiday party, pick up the office kitchen, identify and report or solve a problem, submit an innovative idea, or promote the company to their friends?  Community management is largely about providing the value, relationships, tools, environment and recognition that encourages all of these ‘soft’ outcomes that often have more influence over transactional behavior than anything else. Online, we can now track some of these behaviors and organizations are starting to take notice, at least peripherally.

The issue? You can’t get to the desired transactions and outcomes until you have created an environment in which people want to participate on a regular basis and in which you acknowledge and reciprocate the value they have already contributed.  You can’t get the egg (increased revenue or cost savings) before you have the chicken (a social environment of reciprocity and exchange), but finding the chicken may be nearly impossible for many organizations, stuck culturally and structurally in a mindset of currency as their primary means of calculating and exchanging value.

So you’re the social strategist trying to make headway in a large, traditionally run organization that is doing OK, thank-you-very-much and keeps repeating to you “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Building a community that is productive (meaning producing the transaction value that can be ‘seen’ by the organization) takes a lot of time, infrastructure, and resources.  But by now you’ve got a pretty good sense that by aggregating and encouraging value creation and exchange through customer and partner contributed content, recommendations, advocacy, insights, and support can change the fundamental cost structure of the business.  It’s a big, hairy audacious goal and many of your colleagues just want to build a Facebook page so they can tell executives you’ve got a bajillion fans. You need enough eggs (results) in order to keep stakeholders excited and supportive enough to do the long, hard work of community building (nurturing the growth of the chicken), which likely includes some big changes to corporate culture and leadership as well. This doesn’t sound like an appealing challenge to most people.

So that has me wondering… how do YOU stay motivated for that challenge while coming up with some smaller eggs in the short term?

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