This isn’t Seinfeld: pitching the social web can’t be about nothing

June 4, 2012

In the scene of the iconic Seinfeld episode depicted above, which came to define the series, George and Jerry pitch their idea of producing a show about nothing.  The confused NBC executives, however, are a cautious and uncomfortable audience because they naturally want to avoid the risk of loss associated with a show that deviates from the standard formula.  The ensuing farcical exchange is less communication than collective monologue, and it is funny because it is familiar.

It is familiar because promoting the integration of the social web into the work environment one finds oneself in a situation similar to Jerry and George:

To the advocate (you), value of the social web to produce knowledge through networks, and promote social learning is self-evident; while from the perspective of the ‘pitchee’ – decision-maker like Mr. Dalrymple, the fictional President of NBC  in the Seinfeld episode – the benefits seem intangible at best and the downside risks seem potentially lethal.

Convincing skeptical management to engage the social web requires you to value the intangibles, particularly the benefits.

Pitching the social web can’t be about nothing

Applying social web tools is not an end in itself, but must support achievement of an objective, usually a specific behavioural change (caveat: although achievement of objectives is the focus, this ‘macro’ result can only be realized through ‘micro’ – read: individual – activity.  People’s goals and incentives must also be considered when implementing social web tools).  How does one then measure the return on the investment or impact of social web tools?

Toward measurement

Developing metrics to value social web tools is not for the faint at heart, offering significant challenges.  In my experience these metrics tend toward activity measures – such as retweets, followers, Likes and page views – because they have intuitive appeal and are efficient to collect.  However, applying only activity measures can be akin to the cliché of looking for your keys under a lamppost at night: you’ll be able to see, but won’t necessarily find what you are looking for.

searching for keys lamppost drunk

What is needed is a framework that includes both activity measures, to confirm that you are reaching your target audience and to add an element of gamification, as an incentive for individuals to engage, and to measure the contribution of social web tools to the achievement of the overarching goal(s), integrating quantitative and qualitative data.  Fortunately one exists.

A conceptual framework to promote and assess value creation in communities and networks

In a report published in 2011 entitled Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual frameworkEtienne Wenger, Beverly Trayner and Maarten de Laat describe a framework to promote and assess “the value of the learning enabled by community involvement and networking.”  (p. 7)  The framework, graphically depicted in Figure 1 below, describes five ‘cycles’ through which communities and networks create value, which are described in more detail in Figure 2.

Figure 1: “In summary, accumulating evidence of the value created by a community or network can be represented as a matrix of indicators and stories. The squares represent indicators at each cycle. The colored lines represent stories that weave among the elements of each cycle. Dotted lines represent use of proxies and assumptions. The red backward arrow represents a reconsideration of an outcome indicator due to the reflection from stories.” Wenger et al, p. 39.

Figure 2: Summary of Cycle Value


Value Created

Evidence of Value

1.  Immediate Value: Activities and interactions Network engagement has intrinsic value Members find the engagement useful and rewarding
2.  Potential Value: Knowledge capital Knowledge and emergent practice developed has recognized future potential use Knowledge and practice is relevant and useful in multiple settings
3.  Applied Value: Changes in practice Developed knowledge and practice are applied, resulting in “changes or innovations in actions, practice, tools, approaches or organizational systems.” (Wenger, pp. 20-21) Knowledge and practice are disseminated within the organization as good practice
4.  Realized Value: Performance improvement Knowledge and practice result in increased performance on both the personal and organizational levels ROI demonstrated through efficiencies realized after knowledge and practice applied
5.  Reframing Value: Redefining success Learning imperatives and success criteria are redefined at either the individual, collective or organizational levels Redefinition of success criteria, system transformation and/or the introduction of a new strategic framework

The framework also provides a list of typical indicators and data sources, by cycle, and a toolkit on how to tell compelling stories.

Other applications

When I was first considering this post, my intention was to concentrate on how to pitch the adoption of the social web, but it transmogrified into something I think is more useful: a way to measure the value of engagement.  I say more valuable because demonstrating value is essential to aid decision makers to make an informed judgement on whether to integrate social web tools into work processes, and, if the decision is made to go ahead, to act as a guide to develop a social media strategy in the first place, or communications in general.

Thinking about it in a broader context, I believe that this framework can be extended to measure not just the value of communities and networks, but any correspondence, such as a report, the aim of which is to influence and change behaviour.  The cycles of value creation make it clear that while the intrinsic and potential value of engagement are useful, there is a loftier objective – to change practice to improve personal and organizational performance – the achievement of which can be transformational.


  1. Seinfeld image: http://www.tvfanatic.com/quotes/shows/seinfeld/episodes/the-pitch/
  2. “I’m looking for social media impact.” image: http://answers.oreilly.com/topic/1233-how-to-make-use-of-your-apophenia/
  3. Wenger, Etienne et al. (2011) Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual analysis. Retrieved from http://wenger-trayner.com/documents/Wenger_Trayner_DeLaat_Value_creation.pdf

One Response to “This isn’t Seinfeld: pitching the social web can’t be about nothing”

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