When I started working in the field of intangibles, I immediately learnt to appreciate the immense value of one of the assets that form part of the intellectual capital of a business: the Relationship Capital. The transition from my work with intangibles to working with social media was a natural development for me: I’ve always considered social media as the perfect vehicles to build, exploit and manage intangible assets. The most obvious example is indeed with Relationship Capital: we are promoted by word of mouth reputation, and our networks grow at the rhythm of community advocacy. Social media gives us hundreds of tools and technologies to develop and harness those dynamics, allowing for a continuous and spontaneous social interaction that should add value to our business. I say “should” because it doesn’t happen by itself. Social Media introduced infact another type of capital, the Social Capital, formed by all those contacts, fans, followers that we meet during social wanderings. It’s the result of serendipitous discoveries and occasional meetings and there’s a clear distinction between that and what we refer to as Relationship Capital. The latter is measured in depth and strength, the former in reach and breadth: this often means that the latter rightly belongs to the realm of intangible assets and, as such, it’s hardly measured; the former is measured by sheer numbers, which give us an immediate feedback.
Whereas social technologies are allowing for an ever growing Social Capital without too much effort from our side, Relationship Capital is still to be merited, and it needs the same commitment that an offline relationship requires, if not more. When we meet a new friend, and we add their number on our phone, if we don’t phone them and invite them for a coffee or a walk, their name will be left in our contacts and probably deleted at the next contacts clean-up. The same thing happens online, within the different social networks we’re on. How many LinkedIn contacts do we actually know, and with how many of them have we exchanged a meaningful conversation? Not to speak of twitter followers, or Facebook fans.
I was at TEDx Glasgow at the beginning of the month, and I had similar thoughts about the huge amount of content we continuously share online. Joe Tree from Blipfoto was one of the speakers and as usual he captured my attention talking about the simple and successful concept at the basis of his social network: 200 millions of pictures are uploaded on Facebook everyday, we can only upload one photo a day on Blipfoto. Which one will succeed in leaving some meaningful contribution to human history, and also in leaving us with most memories? Most certainly, the latter. It’s one pic per day, it is personal, we curate it with metadata, we tell a short story about it, we care about it, we don’t just upload 100 pictures a time straight from our phone, and then forget the how, who, when, where and why. In the same way, Relationship Capital has to be derived one contact a time. Who’s ready to say that they have a meaningful relationship with their 500+ LinkedIn connections, 1200 Facebook fans and 300 G+/twitter followers? Dunbar’s numbers are there to demonstrate that we can only maintain a stable relationship with 150 individuals.
So, does this all mean that too much equals to nothing? No, absolutely. Social Capital has got its value, but it’s not the same value as our Relationship Capital. If we think “viral”, if we think of ‘the long tail’, the value of Social Capital can be immense, but the distinction we made above is not just a speculative one, we need to keep it in mind when we develop our business strategies, social media plans, crowdfunding campaigns and so on.
Let’s think about a crowdfunding campaign for example: everybody is telling you that you need a big social presence to start with, which translated means a lot of followers, fans, contacts, etc. But when you launch your campaign, you struggle to hit any meaningful sum. Why? What happened to all those followers and fans, are they really listening? In this case the Social Capital has limited value. A strong Relationship Capital would probably make the difference instead: formed with time, people can associate a twitter handle with an email or a shake of hands, not only with an undefined profile pic. Of course, for a crowdfunding campaign to be successful, Social Capital is important as well, crowdfunding is indeed based on the ‘long tail’ concept, and on word of mouth. But it must not precede the Relationship Capital, it has to go through it, and rely on your contact’s Relationship Capital too. Then, in a latter moment, we might have those serendipitous moments when an odd contact who’s part of one’s own Social Capital will be listening to your tweets. But we can’t base a success on serendipity alone, we can build on dreams not on chances.
We now have the right tools and the right mindset to create a meaningful Relationship Capital. Probably we can do it only slightly quicker, because it still takes time to build a relationship that has some value, but we can certainly do it more effectively, because we can tap into a world of possibilities. Let’s not think it’s all about online interaction, above all because we are still in a transition era, there are people out there who “don’t get it” and probably never will. But we all are social ‘by default’, we don’t need to struggle to go social, we just need to stay so and make the most of it. Then let those 6 degrees of separation do the rest of the job for us.