Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

When is the Best Time to Tell the Truth about the Cost of Social Media?

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

One of the things I do is help people plan how to use collaboration systems and social media. Sometimes one deliverable is a project schedule describing a sequence of tasks and associated costs. If the project involves creating content and monitoring and engaging with external communities, I try to model the projected costs based on different assumptions tied to metrics reflecting core content creation, time spent reading selected feeds and other sources, and engaging meaningfully on external or  related networks or communities.

One response I sometimes get is “That much, huh? Can’t we just start with a Facebook group?”

The answer is obviously “yes.” But lurking in the back of my mind is the question of quality and scaling especially if I’m dealing with specialized professional populations where different groups need to be treated individually. Establishing a trusted relationship (and a professional “presence”) with each group takes time. While it may be easy to automate certain research and monitoring activities, it’s not so easy to automate relationship development and trust.

My theory is that sometimes it’s easier for small and large organizations to create social media programs that support engagement with multiple communities. It’s trickier for middle size organizations.

For small organizations leadership is accustomed to engaging directly with the different groups in their value chain. For larger organizations senior management can organize to ensure that engagement activities are professionally managed and done in ways consistent with corporate philosophy.

For mid-size organizations it’s harder. They have to engage in regularizing and standardizing a wide range of corporate processes. They don’t have the resources to do this that larger organizations have. Outsourcing and cloud based technology support may be helpful in some instances but when it comes to using social media to engage honestly and truthfully with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders, outsourcing is not as much of an option.

Which gets us back to when it makes sense to be truthful about the costs of social media. One advantage of downplaying total costs is that “baby steps” can be taken at first and the organization can learn. The downside of that approach is that opportunities can be lost especially in competitive situations. Being too comprehensive about costs, on the other hand, runs another risk; a negative reaction can put the whole plan on hold if lower cost options aren’t also covered by the plan.

Sometimes what’s needed is a middle ground where a phased plan is guided by a long-term strategy so that wasted effort is minimized and costs can be related to ongoing benefits. That approach can work; clients never like “sticker shock” no matter what kind of process or system is being proposed. The challenge is then to start small while ensuring that long term implications are understood and appreciated.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald

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