I came across an interesting post on the value of a Facebook fan today, via Todd van Hoosear and Dave Fleet (h/t to both of you).

Augie Ray, who posited this on Forrester’s blog, said:

It is a question I hear several times a week:  What is the value of a Facebook Fan?  I’ve seen answers ranging from $136.38 to $3.60.  I can’t blame vendors, agencies and consultants for trying to answer the question — the hunger from clients is so great that anyone promising a simple answer is likely to get attention.  The problem is that there is no simple answer to such a complex question. In fact, it may be best if marketers approached this question as if the answer is zero — unless and until the brand does something to create value with Facebook Fans.

Augie goes into great detail, so I urge you to read the entire post. Equally interesting are the comments, ranging from “heck yea” to “hell no.”

As I read through the comments, my thoughts kept coming back to this: how do we define value?

Dictionary.com has 19 – count ’em – definitions of the word “value” as a noun. These include:

– relative worth, merit, or importance: the value of a college education; the value of a queen in chess.

– monetary or material worth, as in commerce or trade: This piece of land has greatly increased in value.

– the worth of something in terms of the amount of other things for which it can be exchanged or in terms of some medium of exchange.

– equivalent worth or return in money, material, services, etc.: to give value for value received.

There are several more, including definitions for music, sociology, etc. For those of us who work in PR, they’re probably not as relevant as the others (but maybe that’s just me).

If we strip through the different definitions – many of which assess value in transactional terms – it seems to me “value” is basically another word for WIIFM.

For example:

“What’s the value of my IABC membership?”

Translates to: why should I spend $300+ a year to basically pay the salaries of a small staff of an otherwise volunteer-run (i.e. non-paid) organization, if I’m not going to get something out of it? Learnings I can apply in my work? Business leads? Speaking engagements? Greater visibility within a community that matters to me… and how is that going to help me professionally?

“What value do I get from spending two-three hours a day on Twitter?”

Translates to: am I getting cheap thrills out of gaining more followers (let’s admit it, no one wants to LOSE followers)? Am I making new connections that add value (there’s that word again) to my life? Am I finding new business opportunities? Partnership opportunities? Media who’d be interested in my clients? Learning from people I ordinarily wouldn’t come into contact with?

“What’s the value of giving up an entire wall in my office to my husband’s 5’x4′ framed poster of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth?”

Translates to: was it worth giving up that much potential bookshelf space to make my husband happy? (Answer: yes, and it helps me to look at it periodically through the day to remind myself there’s life outside of work).

Here are some of the answers I got from a quick Twtpoll:

Whichever way you look at it, we get value from something because it does something for us. WIIFM.

As Augie says in his post, we can’t really blame companies for asking that question when they embark on a Facebook fan page or, really, any activities. They’re watching the dollars; the business has to do well, or else they’re history.

And we can’t really blame companies that come up with these “calculators” any more than we can blame spiritualists for producing ectoplasm, as they did in droves at the turn of the century; there’s a demand for an easy fix, and they’re fast to capitalize on it by catering to that demand.

That doesn’t mean it’s ok. Even though I plugged it a couple of days ago, you should read Sean Williams’ post on the theater of the absurd in social media metrics.

This is a graphic I use in my classes at Johns Hopkins (you’re welcome to use it if you like, just attribute it to me, please). It’s a very simplified way of looking at non-profit communications, certainly, but I’ve found it gets the point across:

If we look at social media efforts with the same lens, isn’t that what businesses are trying to do?

Yes, they’ve accepted that they can’t engage in one-way communication any more, but the whole point of adopting social media is to build relationships using these new tools and networks (and that word again connotes relationships) that result in outcomes that are beneficial to their businesses.

Those outcomes are business’ WIIFM. For fans/followers, it’s the value they get from interacting with these businesses. That’s their WIIFM.

So it means diddly-squat if your Facebook fans are worth $3 or $136, unless you’re planning to sell them, and I think that would be pretty dastardly.

If you haven’t engaged enough with them to motivate them into doing something, what’s the point of that “media value”? How is that adding to your bottom line?

If you can provide value to  your fans – answer their WIIFM – they will help you put your money where your mouth is – and that’ll be your WIIFM.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what’s most important?

More fodder on measurement:

Image: Sam Agnew, Creative Commons