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Magazines > Information Today > October 2009

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Information Today

Vol. 26 No. 9 — October 2009

Plotting Social Media’s Bottom Line
by Dick Kaser

We’ve been talking about Web 2.0 and social media in our publications and at our conferences for many years now. We’ve watched this trend emerge from a radical idea and grow into a concept with widespread acceptance. But to what effect? There seem to be two sides to the story.

At ALA in July, LITA asked whether Library 2.0 has fulfilled its promise. At the time, I blogged that the panelists noted that though many libraries have implemented blogs and wikis and are using Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr to promote their libraries, the brands themselves are not the point, and the hours that go into these new activities are difficult to justify without hard evidence.

At Computers in Libraries magazine this summer, our query queue filled up with story proposals about 2.0 success stories in libraries or why it failed or just won’t catch on in others.

Then in August, I spoke to Natalie Petouhoff, Ph.D., a Forrester senior analyst at our CRM Evolution conference in New York. She had just completed a study of how customer service centers, primarily at software and technology companies, can measure the ROI of implementing social media, particularly “customer service communities.”

You may think of customer service communities as user forums where technical support and customer questions are answered by other customers and users. Perhaps you have encountered one of these forums during your interactions with Intel, Linksys, Socialtext, Verizon, DIRECTV, or

But Petouhoff studied those six specific enterprises and more than a dozen others during a 6-month period to reach her conclusions.

Her report not only supports the idea that letting customers answer each other’s questions is not a bad way of diverting costly calls and emails from the customer support staff, it affirms that this can be a great way to get a user’s question resolved accurately and quickly. It can actually be an improvement over what the help desk would have done in some cases.

In fact, these social platforms were so effective in achieving the goals in these six companies that Petouhoff concluded that the investment in developing a customer service community on a social media platform can be recouped in less than a year. By the end of 3 years, the ROI is nearly 100% (i.e., for every dollar spent, you could get up to $2 back in savings and other benefits).

Though library efforts to deploy social media tend to be equated with public outreach or access issues and though library customers tend to be called patrons, I think there’s a connection here. After all, if ROI can be computed for commercial organizations engaged with customers, it can be computed for libraries and information centers engaged with patrons.

The Petouhoff study is based on computing costs and places a value on benefits and risks. The computation method is a Forrester-proprietary formula, but even without knowing what is exactly in this secret sauce, libraries can learn much from the study’s primary methodology.

The report is available to IT readers free of charge until the end of the year, courtesy of Forrester (a $2,000 value). Just go to It comes with a spreadsheet that can be used to plot your own data consistent with the Forrester method. Petouhoff also noted that “in the spirit of the subject this report covers,” everyone can access a free executive summary that provides a good overview of the study and its results. Search for roi of social media at to view the highlights.

Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.’s vice president of content. Send your comments about this article to
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