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Virtual vs. in Real Life: The Value of Relationship Perspective

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Dr Michael WuMichael Wu, Ph.D. is 927iC9C1FD6224627807Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.



Last week I had the great pleasure of presenting and chatting at our Social Customer Virtual Summit (SCVS). And I had the honor of presenting alongside Paul Greenberg on the topic: From Social Customers to Social Influencers. It was a fun and interesting experience. Moreover, it has an interesting relationship to what I’ve been blogging about recently.


If you recall, I have been discussing strength and weakness of social technologies with respect to the Dunbar limit and relationship building. Although modern social technologies are less efficient for building strong relationships compared to face-to-face (F2F) engagements, they dramatically increase our accessibility to potential candidates for relationship building. Our virtual summit is a perfect example of this. So fittingly, I will apply the concepts we discussed last week to analyze the value of social technologies using the virtual summit as a personal anecdote.


Virtual_Relationships.gifIs Virtual Better Than in-Real-Life?

Although I’ve many experiences presenting at academic conferences and lecturing at universities, giving a webcast has always been a strange experience for me because I cannot actually see my audience. So it is very difficult for me to gauge whether they are confused, bored, engaged, or excited. Although I had a scheduled chat with attendees, I was not able to draw a picture to show them what I mean or use my hands and gestures to communicate what I want to convey. So from this perspective, the virtual summit is definitely a less efficient than a meeting/conference in-real-life (IRL).


But, on the other hand, the virtual summit gave us a much greater reach when compared to a physical event. It enabled people who are interested about social customers to join and listen in from all over the world. This year we had 1454 registrants, 708 attendees (48.7% turnout rate, which is not bad for a free event). And among the attendees, 217 (30.6%) of them are international, representing 38 different countries around the world. That means almost 1 out of 3 attendees are from a foreign country. If this were an IRL event, many attendees probably wouldn’t be able to come due to timing conflicts or simply distance. So from this perspective, the virtual summit definitely seems to have greater efficacy.


All this is consistent with what I’ve said in my last post that technologies often help us in some ways, but at the same time they limit us in other ways. Therefore, to make technologies (whether they are social technologies or any other technologies) work for us, we must understand both the strengths and weaknesses; so we can take advantage of the strengths and purposely avoid the weaknesses. But how can we make the tradeoff between the more efficient F2F engagements vs. the tremendous gain in accessibility? They seem like apples and oranges.


What is the True Value of Being Virtual?

One of my comments in the discussions of last week’s post was “whether social technologis can help us build stronger relationship really comes down to how we use them.” That is whether we are using them in addition or as replacement to F2F engagement. If we use them in addition to F2F engagement, then they can definitely help us build stronger relationships. If we use them as a replacement to F2F, and since socializing through social technologies is less efficient than F2F interaction, we would end up with a weaker relationship.


Now, how can we apply this to analyze our virtual summit? It would be interesting to survey the attendees and see how many of them would have attended if the social customer summit were an IRL event, and how many wouldn’t be able to make it. There are only two outcomes from this survey.

1. They would have attended it either way, whether it was an IRL event or a virtual event:

For these people, we are losing the opportunity to build a stronger relationship with these people. Because we have replaced what would have been a F2F engagement with the less efficient virtual channel by making the social customer summit a virtual event.


2. They would NOT be able to attend if it was an IRL event, due to distance, conflicts, or whatever reason it may be:

For these people, then the virtual summit is an addition to the F2F engagement. Let me explain why. Because whether we held the summit as a virtual event or IRL event, these people are not going to have any F2F interaction. If it was an IRL event, they can’t make it, and virtual events by definition do not have any F2F engagement, so in either case, the amount of F2F interaction is zero! But by making the summit a virtual event, these people are at least able to interact virtually, which is an addition to zero interaction otherwise. Therefore we have gain the opportunity to build some relationship as opposed to nothing at all.


Since I have not done the survey, I do not have the hard evidence and data to back up my claim here. But I’ve asked several experts who have a lot of experience planning events (both virtual and IRL). A very conservative educated guesstimate is that only about a quarter of them would have been able to make it if the summit was an IRL event.


If I make a simplifying assumption that distance is the only factor that determine whether they can attend or not, then I can look at our attendee data to make some educated guesses. Even if I make an overly conservative assumption that ALL California residents are close enough to attend the virtual summit, I get 116 (16%) attendees from CA and 592 (84%) out of state (with 217 foreign).


As I’ve mentioned last time, what we have done here is a shift of our attention and time resources. We are shifting our time and attention from engaging IRL (which is more attention-demanding) with the few attendees who would have came either way, to engage virtually (which is less attention-demanding) with a much greater number of attendees who wouldn’t be able to make it otherwise. So even though we might be losing some potential values from the 16% to 25% of attendees, we gain values from the remaining 75% to 84% of attendees who would not have been able to come if the summit were an IRL event. This is the power of that technologies can bring. So do not underestimate the value of accessibility provide by technologies.


Access to My SCVS Presentation

Finally, I want to address a question that was raised during the virtual summit. Some of you noticed the animation on my webcast didn’t’ came through very nicely, and it appears my slides were not keeping up with my talk. We apologize for this technical difficulty in showing the animations. We have fixed the timing issue in the recorded (on-demand) version of the webcast, so you can view it again at your leisure. However, because our vendor was not able to provide HD video quality of my presentation, some of the animations in my slides still appear choppy. So I’ve decided to make available a read-only version of my presentation for everyone to download and play along with the webcast. You can download it below at the end of this post under Attachments.


Alright, I hope you find this analogy interesting. This post also serves as a natural bridge from the more theoretical discussions earlier to the more practical application and analysis that we will be doing next time. I apologize for this minor digression, but I really want to make the presentation available. I promise I will analyze Facebook’s fan page next time.


In the meantime, enjoy the fully animated version of the presentation (download via link below under Attachments) from my portion of the webcast. Remember, you can still access ALL the webcast from SCVS here. At last, I welcome and enjoy any discussion as always.