flowing motion

Dam it! The potential of social media

Posted on: May 22, 2008

Kariba Dam wall by acidwashtofu in Flickr

Hat-tip for the picture of Kariba Dam wall: acidwashtofu on Flickr

Metrics, marriages & dams

We had a good session on metrics at Bucks08 Social Media Camp at the weekend, and no sooner than we had got home, Dan Thornton, a community marketing manager with Bauer, and Paul Imre, a web specialist from High Wycombe, had translated our discussions into models.

Dan used the parallel of a marriage, to ask how well our social media functions. Paul asked about how much we should invest in social media. He followed up Toby Moores of Sleepy Dog, who had commented that social media was essential infrastructure, much as electricity in our office – essential and not debatable.

Paul asks

  • Does social media increase our collective potential to act?
  • Can we estimate in advance how much we will increase in our capacity to act collectively?
  • And, consequently, can we judge how much to invest in social media?

He used the metaphor of a dam to capture these ideas.

Collective potential and the amplification factor

As luck would have it, there was a lull in the American elections this week, and several articles on how the Barack Obama campaign used social media.

Look at this profile. One of the factors prompting Barack Obama to run for President was that supporters, not his official campaign, his supporters set up a campaign in My Space with 160K members.

Obama expects ultimately to raise USD1bn online. As online donations tend to be around 10 dollars a pop, there is, by my calculations, an amplification factor of 650.

I like this example because it provides a working example for Paul’s metaphor of a dam. The My Space campaign captures and concentrated the energy of 160K supporters. That reservoir helped provide the energy or impetus for a ‘real-life’ action – Obama throws his hat into the ring.

Obama’s campaign is using social media formally. He has a media strategy and staff. Certainly, his use of social media has helped his campaign. It is nice to go to You Tube and pick up his latest speech when I want to.

But I doubt that social media has had a large impact on his campaign. His campaign is still led by ideas, policy, rallies, phone calls, etc. etc. What social media has allowed, are additional forms of communication and additional forms of donation. If it is easy to donate USD10 or 5 pounds, you are more likely to do it.

The amplification effect is reciprocal. The social media concentrates loyalty. Loyalty affects the leader. The leader amplifies loyalty. And we see the effect in the social media.

When it comes to investment, these figures illustrate the size of things. If I suspect I can swell my audience from 160K to 100 million, with the corresponding increase in revenue (4 times I believe the last record), then investing in the infrastructure is worth it. It would be nice to know the cents spent on social media per vote. I suspect the money spent on social media is trivial compared to the money spent on conventional advertising, air travel, etc.

A quiver full of questions

I like any idea with heuristic value and the dam metaphor prompts several questions and rules-of-thumb.

1 Community first

We don’t locate a dam anywhere. We need a catchment area where rain falls, dribbles into rivers which flow into a wider river which flows onwards to the sea where we can no longer use it for drinking, etc.

In social media, we need to understand our community and where they hang out in the social media – Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on.

2. We add a new marker for our community

We don’t build the dam wall anywhere. We must capture the water. With a dam, we build the wall in a narrow place with a natural basin behind it to store the water.

The same principle applies in social media. in LinkedIn, asking a question temporarily captures interest. I understand Second Life works around events. We need to understand the topography of the medium to know how to cocoon our community.

3. Engineer in context

We don’t build the dam wall anyhow. The wall must be an effective piece of engineering and it must work in situ.

Most writing about social media is about the engineering. Less is written about engineering in context. We need to know about the context too.

4 Be very, very responsive

We need to maintain the wall. I know that Kariba, the second highest dam in the wall, is constantly maintained by divers who swim with giant crocodiles (trolls?)

We know that we must be very responsive and very honest in our dealings with online communities. We are likely to learn more.

5 Why are we getting together online?

And we need a reason for the dam. We build dam walls to provide us with hydroelectric power, water and irrigation.

We need to know why we are building the ‘container’ of interest in the media space. What is it that many of us can do together that we cannot do alone? Do we understand the power of community in the context of our business? I would begin by asking business clients about their community and how they relate to it.

6. Where does our business stop and where does our community begin?

We need to understand that we are changing the patterns of interaction. With real dams, water upstream and downstream is owned and used. When we build a dam we have to negotiate water rights far afield and it is very likely that our interaction shifts a level from the individual to the collective. We might even shift from the private to the public domain.

I ‘hear’ this as being the biggest mental shift for business people. In ‘dirt-space’, usually a strong community leader emerges who talks about the possibilities of things like dams and mobilizes people to imagine the possibilities.

7 Lest we forget

Some people lose out altogether. When we build a dam, we flood peoples land.

Who will lose out and what do we intend to do about it?

8 Side-effects

Dams also change the pattern of use. If you search for Kariba on Flickr, most pictures are about recreation and tourism. There are very few pictures about hydroelectric power or the people who live alongside the lake.

Every action has a reaction, and a heap of side effects!

9 What is the multiplier effect?

And ultimately, can we imagine the impact of our dam? When we understand electricity, we can imagine the benefit of a national grid – or can we? Massive amounts of reliable electricity transform the potential of the economy. We aren’t talking about more of the same. We are talking about infrastructure that liberates us from drudgery, from limiting our work to daylight hours, from winding up our USD100 laptop, from lugging paraffin to power the fridge for our medicines. If your business is based upon that drudgery, you may not be happy to see electricity on tap, or on switch, rather.

This appears to be the second place where we stumble. I would look for the opportunity precisely at the point we say “I’m alright Jack”.

And is I suspect that ultimately, we are going to have to walk-the-talk. Like Obama, we are going to have to throw our hat into the ring and prove the point. And to do that takes confidence in yourself, your community and a critical mass of believers (or hopefuls – sorry!).

Next social media unconference

If you are interested in social media, the next unconference is in London on July 5.

Sign up social media style on the wiki. It’s free. And present if you would like to.

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11 Responses to "Dam it! The potential of social media"

Dam good post 🙂

From my research interviewing successful entrepreneurs who are using Facebook for marketing, one of the strategies we concluded was better ROI is to get people transitioned OFF FB and onto their own sites, where the real business can be closed.

A good stepping stone is to lead them from FB to your blog, which is a soft landing compared to having them fall out of the cozy touchy feely FB and hit your “money site” directly.

Well developed! Next stop the Tribal IQ….

Good tip, thanks Paul.

Someone needs to tell me why I would enjoy Facebook though. I take one look and run!

This is facinating Jo. I will see if I can go to the next event – would be good to finally catch up with each other for a proper chat.

How about defining some units? As Jo has calculated the Obama amplification effect to be 650…… I propose that we name this the Jordan factor.

fn( x, y, z) = J units of amplification.

Then we can model and compare. (Similar to Goole’s PR, you would pay for that right?)

This would then lead us to think about the other parts of the story… How would you measure potential? You might never see it or you might get a trickle or even a torrent.

The tribal IQ. (Is that a multiplication? add two IQs of 150? or do we get more? Or do we get the slowest ship in the convoy?)

Good of you to drop in Scott. The social media mafia are a good crowd – so yep, maybe July 5 will be the date of much delayed meeting!

Hi Paul, I think the word potential is important – potential and prediction are often confused.

To stick with the dam analogy, I think we must define potential for what? Like a dam, each community has potential for many things – irrigation, water supply, hydro – and disaster if the wall breaks re: Sichuan.

Having lived in country where the economy was underpinned with man-made dams (is that sexist?), the usual report, and ongoing anxiety, is % full. That brings us back to your concepts of capacity and our pre-investment decision. If we planned for lesser capacity, when we are full we have to let the water out, and that must be planned. Again, big much talked about decision because of the effect downstream. And maximum capacity cannot be a matter of wishful thinking: catchment area, gorge, basin, wall, water agreements, cost and expected ROI.

And Tribal IQ probably includes the idea that we should all cross the line together. There is bound to be some collective agreement and commitment in there somewhere.

This is turning out to be a productive conversation and you started it! HW rules!

[…] a group that was “thinking”. After Bucks08, Paul came up with the analogy of a “dam” which stores potential. Toby Moores of Sleepy Dog wasn’t so taken with the image of […]

[…] we don’t have to be too bothered. At Bucks08 Media Camp, we talked about social media being infrastructure. Twitter is definitely infrastructure. Proof? […]

[…] to understand the value of the community created by social media: here, here, and […]

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