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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.

Not applicable

I love the real life exploration of everything you've been covering, Michael.


I have 2 points I'd like to explore with you and the readers relative to this post. 


first  - just wanted to ask about your six dimensions of influence model.   Would you say that, by providing the recording of the event - and the ability to interact with that recording, you are extending the "timing" and "alignment" of the target (e.g. people like me who missed the conference)?  


second - a few years back I set out to "map" the social media landscape.  I focused on  2 primary dimensions of Context Potential and Interactivity mapped on X and Y axis.  This seemed to capture the sparse, interactive nature of Twitter (upper left) and the context-rich, but far-less-interactive nature of video (lower right quadrant).


Then I started mapping other stuff - like a web site and In-Real-Life (IRL) events, networking, the phone, etc.   And I realized that it was less a map of social media and more a map of human communication in general.   IRL is in the upper right corner and remains the most potent, high bandwidth, context-rich and interactive form of communication.


I'm wondering if that kind of continuum could be helpful in answering the question you ask in your post, "how can we make the tradeoff between the more efficient F2F engagements vs. the tremendous gain in accessibility? They seem like apples and oranges. "


Sometimes we don't have a choice in how to engage.   How to optimize the mix of real and virtual worlds seems like an important and very personal question.   And is "optimizing" the same as "balancing" ... I worry they may be two very different things in this context  🙂


Thanks for sharing your presentation - and thank you again for providing space to participate in this continued inquiry into who we are becoming as the human species. 


- Skip


Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Skip,


Welcome back and thanks for the question and comment. Let’s explore your topics together.


First, there are many context to the concept of influence. The social media influence model was developed under a marketing/sales oriented context. In such context there is a goal for influence, which is to drive someone through the purchase funnel. Whether it is moving you from unaware to awareness or from awareness to consideration, there is a definite objective for such type of influence.


However, I think the context that you are speaking of is more of a learning/education oriented context, (which is quite different from the marketing/sale context). In such context, it is not very clear what is the ultimate goal. people learn things for many reason. Sometimes it is merely to gathering more information for other goals (which can be anything), some merely for fun and intellectual satisfaction. Because knowledge and facts doesn’t really have a notion of timing and expiry (unless it is something that is proven wrong), people can learn things whenever they want, wherever they want. Some information may be old, but may still be valuable to those who seeks them. So if the goal is purely for education, then timing and channel alignment in essence become irrelevant for educational type of influence.


We are constantly learning new thing and influenced by the information we learned day to day. Some of these may be news, but some may be age old research from the past. Some of these may be on the internet, some may be in a book. Therefore, by providing a recording of the event it may seem like that we are extending he timing and alignment for the target. But for the learning and education context, these factors may not be relevant. It really becomes an information retrieval problem that Google does so well. If you are looking for a piece of information purely for education purpose, then as long as the information is relevant and accurate, you don’t really care when it is created, or where it is recorded and stored, as long as you can access it. So I would be careful not to over generalize the influence model into realms that may not be applicable, even though it was my own creation. This is just my point of view.


To your second question. I think that having a map that outlines the different dimension of different forms of human communication is definitely helpful. But to truly evaluate and compare them quantitatively, we need to be able to translate them and put them on level ground. That means we need to map these different dimensions to a common attribute.


For example: although we cannot directly compare an apple and orange, the way a business typically do to deal with this is to compare things is through their value. For example, we can compare their price (assuming the market is efficient so that price is a good reflection of value) of an apple vs. an orange.


In the scenario I talked about in this post. I’ve map everything to the strength of relationship. However, what I haven’t done is go further to quantify how much does a strong relationship worth and how much does a weak tie worth. But I will leave that to you, because as I mentioned in several discussion earlier, there is a continuum of tie strength, and people draw the line that separate strong ties from weak ties pretty arbitrarily. So different people will have different values for a stronger ties.


Just as an example: Hypothetically, if a stronger ties is worth 3x (say $1500 each) as much as a weak ties ($500 each). Then the examples that I analyzed about the virtual summit can be evaluated in the following way. We have potentially reduced the tie strength of 25% (this is our most conservative estimate) of the people by making the summit a virtual event. So we lost $1000 for these 25% of the attendees:


     $1000 x (25% x 708 attendees) = $1000 x (177 attendees) = $177,000 Lost by going virtual.


But we’ve gain $500 from the 75% who wouldn’t have been able to make it if it were a IRL event. So the gain can be calculated as follow.


     $500 x (75% x 708 attendees) = $500 x (531 attendees) = $265,500 Gain by going virtual.


So, even if the stronger ties is worth 3x more than a weak tie. The gain is still lot higher going virtual. But only you would know how much is a stronger relationship worth to your business and how much does a weaker one worth. And there are definitely situations where virtual doesn't make sense. So I will leave this exercise for you readers out there.


Ok, thank you for the interesting questions. I hope I’ve addressed your question. Hope to see you again next time. And have a wonderful and relaxing Thanksgiving.


Great analysis. There is only one point I am not sure I completely agree with.

You mention "If we use them [social technologies] 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" == totally agree based on our previous conversations.

However, in your #2 scenario They would NOT be able to attend if it was an IRL event, due to distance, conflicts, or whatever reason it may be, you say for these people the virtual summit is an addition to the F2F engagement. This is where my contention is. I think for these folks the virtual is a replacement and not an addition - as they would not have attended a F2F anyway.

Also, by saying #2 is an 'addition to' are we not coming out with contradictory results?

Previous concl: Social tech "in addition" to F2F creates stronger relationship.

Current concl: We are only creating some relationship (& therefore weak) with folks who are using social tech "in additon" to F2F (scenario #2).

I love the idea of your survey and I think it would benefit to break it into one more category.

  • 1. Folks who can & would have attended the IRL if it were available

  • 2. Folks who can but would not attend the IRL but opt for the Virtual

  • 3. Folks who cannot attend the IRL but would attend the Virtual

  • The interesting thing to see would be how many cross-over from #1 above to #2. In other words, by offering virtual how many relationships are you potentially pushing away (by giving them a choice).

    Anyway, just some thoughts. Interesting read as always - and love these academic jabs with you 🙂

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Ned,


Thank you the comment and the challenge.


In this case, I don't think it is logically correct to think of the virtual interaction as a replacement for those people who would not be able to make it to the virtual summit. Recall the example I give about me using social technology to learn about my friends in relatives in Taiwan in our discussion last week. Let me quote it here:

"... I use social technologies to learn about my friends and families in Taiwan. But due to the fact that we are geographically segregated, we can probably only meet F2F once a year. With or without social tech, we will and we can only meet once a year for about a week. In this case, if I use social tech, it will be an addition to our year F2F gathering. So the additional amount of time/attention I spend on these distant relationships through social tech would probably increase our tie strength..."

The situation is the same here. With or without the virtual event, we cannot meet these attendees, because these attendees were not able to make it if the summit if it was a in-real-life (IRL) event. That means whatever face-to-face (F2F) interaction or engagement we had PRIOR to the summit cannot be increased further by the IRL event, because there is no way that they could have make to the IRL event. By making the event virtual, they are able to come and therefore increase the attention devoted to building this relationship with us.


I think you might have misinterpreted the linguistics of the term "replacement." Just because they come to the virtual event and not the IRL event, doesn't meant they replace the IRL event with the virtual event. It is only a replacement if they could have come to either one, but choose to come to the virtual instead of the IRL event.


If they cannot come to the IRL event, then they have no other choices. So they are NOT replacing any F2F interaction with virtual interactions. Just like my friends in Taiwan, I have no choice but to only visit them more than once a year. Using social technology (or in this case attending a virtual event) enable us to engage and interact in addition to the annual F2F gathering. This is something that we couldn't have otherwise (because we have no choice due to distance, conflict, etc.), that is why it is an addition to whatever we had so far.


Now, if these attendees are people we never met, then our previous F2F engagement just happen to be zero. So essentially we are adding the less efficient virtual engagement to zero F2F engagement. So what we have is really only just the less efficient virtual engagement, which will result in a relatively weaker relationship than if we can meet F2F. But if the summit was an IRL event, then these people cannot come at all (and since now we assume that we never met before), we have zero engagement which result in no relationship at all.


So the conclusion is still consistent with my previous claim that "when we are using virtual in addition to F2F, we can building a stronger relationship." Just that in this case the F2F happens to be zero (if we don't know the attendees before). So the addition is:

     Virtual + F2F = Virtual + 0 = Virtual ---> a relatively weak relationship (compare to if you had F2F).

And it is consistent, because a weak relationship is still stronger than no relationship at all.


Finally, I think it could be interesting to include an additional category. But if I am only surveying the attendees, I don't think it adds anything that would address the question at hand. Moreover, increasing the number of choices in survey tend to lead to noisier result and lower response rate.


OK, I hope I made this clear. Thanks again for the discussion.




Hi Michael,

Thanks very much for the explanation. You are right that we were talking different semantics on what is meant by replacement & its implication on engagement.


When I said replacement, I was referring to replacing "no F2F" with virtual. However, I do agree with you that in doing so the engagement that is generated is in addition to what would have been there (none- as they cannot make the IRL).


I think we are on the same page now.


(Btw, on a side note - I do think the extra category adds value. I think as a business you want to meet people [and prospective clients] F2F. So if you find out that you have a lot of people opting for scenario #2 above - given a chance to go virtual they would pick virtual even if they are within the IRL vicinity - that would definitely impact the answer to  your two questions: Is Virtual Better Than in-Real-Life? & What is the True Value of Being Virtual?)



Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Ned,


Glad we are on the same page now.


I agree that it would be interesting and probably valuable to include a survey category for "Folks who can but would not attend the IRL but instead opt for the Virtual event." But then this question really posese more question as to why they make that choice. Just knowing that they chose virtual even if they can come to the IRL event is not as helpful, because they can, for any reason, not want to come to the IRL event. From an survey design point of view, I would have to say that just a YES (I could have come to the IRL) vs NO (I cannot make it to the IRL) is much cleaner and more elegant, just from experience. Besides, I only have to survey the attendees. (Not sure if you've read The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. I think you might find it interesting.) Moreover, I would have to survey all the registrants for this to not bias by those who came to the virtual event. If I am only surveying the attendees which is a smaller sampler, I am not sure if the increase variability in the answer justifies the extra category. Just my opinion here.


Thanks again for the discussion. See you next time.


Not applicable

Hi Michael,


Thanks for your discernment between differing objectives in Social Media -- and how those objectives may impact our analysis.   I will keep in mind your focus on sales/marketing for future reading on your influencers... although I suspect that many elements of your influence model could translate over to other objective categories (such as knowledge dissemination/education, relationship/brand building, etc.) .  


I also appreciated your pointing out the role of search engines in this respect.  The ability to retrieve knowledge-centric events via search engines underscores the importance of looking at search and social together.  Search will provide lift and amplification of efforts through social channels. Google's efforts to index tweets around some topics and provide them as search results further amplifies the reach of an influential tweeter.   If that tweeter is aware of the search volumes relative to his/her domain of expertise, then they can craft tweets that are better optimized for user's seeking their kind of expertise.


Your exercise in illustrating relative value computations for weak and strong ties could be helpful for an organization that has a decent sense of these relative values.   It strikes me that this could be a metric to be computed by organizations that are deploying marketing efforts through multiple channels, both IRL and Social Media.   This would look much like the value computation of a sales funnel (purchase funnel - as you highlight in your earlier response) looking at stages such as a f2f meeting, delivering a proposal or receiving a verbal commitment.   Yet gathering the data for such metrics would require a level of sophistication with Social Media measurement that I suspect few companies have today.   


Looking forward to the next installment!





Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Skip,


Glad to see you returning. And thanks for the comment.


There is definitely many context for influence. I will actually go deeper and blog about other context of influence later. But for this discussion, yeah, there is definitely some overlap of the 6 factors I presented in other context of influence. Maybe all the factors are relevant? But I want to test the model with some data before I say for sure.


Yes, information retrieval is key in this information overloaded world. That is why search engines will continue to be in business. And in that context, time is less relevant. Content and the searchabilty of the tweet itself (the precise terms used in the tweet) is probably most important.


But relative values of ties strength are usually pretty difficult to quantify, specially for business. Because both weak ties and strong ties have their values in different situation. We almost need a complete picture of what will happen in the future in order to accurately quantify their value. That being said, value and ROI computation is definitely very important and can be use to gauge marketing effort. But there is already the framework based on customer lifetime value (CLV) for doing this. However, we can probably extend it to include the value of tie-strength in the CLV calculation. This is definitely a very intesting topic. I willl think about it more and maybe write more about it.


Thank again for the comment and see you next time.