The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.

For the past year, I’ve been focusing my research on the power of networked resources. I’ve written blog posts that have demonstrated how both companies and individuals have used digital network technologies to innovate, solve problems, or even spread marketing messages. In each case, I’ve tried to quantify the monetary value created through such access.

Last week, I experienced an “Ah-hah!” moment after reading a MarketingProfs article that demonstrated the monetary value a story can add  to cheap knickknacks. The goal of the Significant Objects experiment wasn’t to mislead. According to its rules, misleading would have voided the test. Instead, the experiment involved writing knickknack-inspired stories that future owners could appreciate and therefore pay a premium.

According to the website, the experiment “…sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51,” simply by attaching a story to each item. Doing the math, storytelling increased the average monetary value of each object by 2,806%.

The X 28 Factor

Twenty Thirty years ago, my uncle gave me a three-inch stack of early 1900s post cards. Here’s an example, circa 1915, called “The Great White Way,” Broadway, New York City:

I’ve always known that these cards carried some monetary value. A quick glance at eBay reveals that their average price tag is about $5 per card, bringing the stack’s estimated value to about $500. However, after reading the results of the Significant Objects experiment, I considered the upside of adding a story to the collection. Would it be possible to increase the stack’s value twenty-eight fold too? Could adding a story to these old postcards increase their total value to $14,000?

Meet Elizabeth

What if I told you that the majority of these postcards were addressed to a woman named Elizabeth who lived in the greater Boston area over one hundred years ago? What if I told you that the cards contained clues to her life? For example, we know that she was married but we don’t know much about her husband. We know that she had a son named Eddie, she worked at a Boston-based Cigar Factory, and she vacationed on Peaks Island in Maine? Do any these tidbits make the postcards sound a little more interesting?

For twenty thirty years, I’d always viewed this stack of postcards as antiques to be sold-off piece-wise. However, after transcribing ninety-nine postcard messages and entering them into a spreadsheet last weekend, I saw them as something very different: a century-old mystery.

I wondered. Who was Elizabeth? What was her life like? Did she have to work in a Cigar Factory, or was it her choice? Who were Nellie, Sadie, Annie, Frank, Ella, Tom, Joe, Ruthie, Margaret, Debby, Mamie, and Kathryn? Why did so many of the messages end with “give my love to the girls?” Who were they? Her daughters? Her sisters? Something more…hmm…interesting?

Could a mystery centered around a woman who lived a century ago multiply the monetary value of these cards? Could the story become a book? A movie? Or, what if the story was less about Elizabeth and more about a quest to eventually return these cards to Elizabeth’s family? Would you watch a documentary of such a quest unfolding?

An Open Source Mystery

If we published all of these postcards online, could we harness the power of the network to help solve this mystery? Would participants from around the globe be willing to use the resources available to them to collectively piece together Elizabeth’s story, with the ultimate goal of delivering it with her postcards to her great-great (great?) grandchildren?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Aug 10, 2011

Most executives remain confused about the applicability of social media in their businesses because they’re presented with such a wide range of definitions. Some define social media in flowery terms like community, engagement, sharing, and transparency. Others described it in utilitarian terms like publishing, marketing, and public relations.

So what is it? Warm and fuzzy or serious business?

The answer is hidden in a 35 year old Saturday Night Live skit.

There’s no need to argue. Social media is a dessert topping, a floorwax and anything in between–like tooth polish. The key is to avoid getting caught-up in the argument. Instead of debating the corner cases, consider all of social media’s attributes before incorporating them into your corporate communications strategy. Most likely, you’ll choose the ones that best align with your company’s corporate culture.

Earlier this month, one of the nonprofits that I volunteer with asked if I could help them raise $3,000 for a special project. The organization had already raised some money offline through their most active supporters, but those efforts had plateaued at $1,125.

First, I assessed their online assets to determine which ones could produce the most robust dividends. Based on that analysis, I decided to approach both their Facebook Fans and blog readers by:

  • creating a “Donations” tab on the Facebook page that described both the project and the goal
  • adding a PayPal button in order to accept credit card donations
  • adding a snail-mail address for donors who were more comfortable sending a check
  • posting to the nonprofit’s Facebook wall (as administrator) letting the organization’s 1400 fans know about the project and new donations tab
  • publishing a blog post about the project that included a link to the new Facebook donations tab
  • and updating the list of donor’s names as they arrived.

The following is a chart illustrates what happened.

In less than nine days, total donations hit $4,575, eclipsing the organization’s $3,000 goal by 53%!

So, here’s a math question for you. Based on the following information, what’s the ROI?:

  • 1400 Facebook fans
  • 120 blog subscribers
  • 400 unique blog visitors per month
  • $30/month for a PayPal account that takes credit cards
  • $0 Facebook Fan page
  • $0 for donated web hosting
  • 2-hours to create and publish the content
  • added $3,450 of online revenue in nine days to the $1,125 that was generated offline.

Successful business folks understand that companies are complicated entities that consist of many moving parts. And although the ROI of individual projects is important, the assets that companies build over time may hold more overall significance in the grande scheme. Therefore, rather than spending time calculating ROI on a project-by-project basis, perhaps it’s more prudent to invest that same time into building your company’s online assets?

By considering new media activities as investments in the development of corporate assets, a world of opportunities open. The more valuable the asset, the larger the dividends that it produces.