Amplified09 and Social Media in a Recession

Today I met with @sleepydog, @sizemore, @benjaminellis and twitter newbie, @princessjanie to discuss the forward plan for the Amplified09 events this year.  The ambition is to host (at least) four events at each of the regional centres in the UK this year, and to bring together a bunch of willing champions to help mount these events, find sponsors and venues and to make all of these events accessible for free.  And at the end of 18 months, Amplified wants to take the outcomes of these smaller events and present them at an international innovation event in the summer of 2010, to an audience of 10,000 delegates from around the world.

So: big ambitions.  But the time is ripe for just such a series of events.  In the current global economic downturn, there is a necessity for organisations across all disciplines to generate greater efficiencies and squeeze the best value out of their current resources.  It’s often said that social media represents the greatest opportunity for organisations to reach consumers and create value in a depressed economy.  But as Dirk noted in comments to my post yesterday, many executives are still uninformed and unconvinced about the benefits of social media as a mechanism for production efficiencies and improved performance.

The difficulty social media advocates have with articulating the value proposition of social media, and convincing corporate excutives to adopt these new media comes down to two problems: mastery and intangible benefits.  I want to explore both ideas briefly here.

1.  Mastery

People who master a skill often can’t easily describe the steps they go through to execute or perform that skill.  So much of the process involved in performance has been absorbed into their understanding that they have trouble breaking down each step along the way, and assume knowledge where there is none.  Indeed, they assume so much of the process is common sense that they focus on the higher techniques of execution rather than explaining how they got to focus on that technique.

Social media mastery is endemic among social media advocates, partly because we all have watched and lived through the developed of the internet from email and newsgroups, to the development of the web and the realisation of the promise of connectivity through the establishment of social media tools and communities online.  We know the tools, we know how to deploy them effectively and we even develop a gut feeling about the usefulness of new tools as they emerge.  We may not be able to tell you why twitter is awesome, but we all intuit its inherent value.

Frustratingly, in failing to articulate the value of a social media tool, masters can sometimes even damage perceptions of newbies about the value of a tool by oversimplifying its functionality, or by failing to consider the tool from the perspective of his/her audience.

2.  Intangible benefits

Bring any group of social media advocates together and they’ll all want to talk about measuring the benefits of the technologies, but they’ll never actually come up with an agreed suite of methodologies to use to demonstrate measurable benefits.  This is primarily because social media benefits are derived from sheer access to alternative sources.  Any social media expert group will come up with numerous examples of how they crowd sourced the answer to an obscure question, or how they found someone with the skills they needed to solve a problem, but no-one can come up with a robust range of measures to convince executives that investment in social media (both financially and in terms of staff time and resources) is going to generate a return.

This isn’t a new problem.  When I used to teach strategic use of information technology, we had the same problem in demonstrating the benefits to be derived from use of IT generally.  Again the benefits were primarily intangible and in terms of process efficiencies.  But in the end, it was often the negative strategy of demonstrating the losses to be incurred from not adopting IT that convinced executives to adopt.

When it comes to social media, the benefits are more about ‘cultivating weak ties‘ or loose connections between people, and cutting down the time it takes for a problem to be solved, so articulating these benefits to corporates is particularly difficult – but it’s not impossible.  Loose connections require actually less investment than strong ones to maintain, and acquiring loose connections through social media is actually quite simple.  Because your connection to other users in a social media mean you have access to the trust networks of your connections, you can very quickly generate loose or parallel ties with other users.  Furthermore, you can mobilise these loose connections to improve both the quality of communication between an organisation and its audience, as well as track the perceptions about an organisation’s goods and services.

In a recession, the reduction in gross product and reducing value of investment assets means that customers are more wary of their spending.  Similarly organisations need to invest less in their goods/services whilst maintaining a good relationship with existing customers.  Social media can be used by customers to gauge the relative value and reliability of goods/services, whilst organisations can use social media both to respond to customer needs in a more agile fashion as well as crowdsourcing new product development.

This all makes perfect sense to social media advocates.  We just don’t have sufficient history and methodologies to demonstrate these opportunities.

So given these problems with mastery and intangible benefits, one of the first opportunities that arises with Amplified09 is to overcome these twin barriers to adoption of social media.  But the only way to achieve such an outcome is to bring together a range of social media, technology and creative media people from around the UK (and indeed, globally), and to document the opportunities and measures available as a live resource, to be edited and extended over time.  If we can collectively share knowledge about social media and the various measures we are using amongst ourselves, then a more positive argument for the technological doubters could be mounted, and economic growth could be fostered rather sooner than later.

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