The dollar value of your online community

As a community manager, you may have been asked to show the "return on investment" of your community. To do this, though, you have to put a dollar amount on the asset that online communities produce, which is namely ideas. So how do you put a value on an idea? How do you value a piece of business advice?

Naturally, I turned to Google to answer this question, but searching for the "dollar value of business advice" returns a bunch of articles about how much consultants should be charging–which, according to a 2006 article from Forbes, should be around $175 per hour for an entry-level business consultant. So figure out how much time it takes to read a post, think up some solutions, type a response, carry the one…. And, who knows? Maybe 15 minutes per response, and at $175 an hour, that's around $45.

Of course, that's assuming the response is actually a good one. If it's totally off base, then it's worthless to the reader. So maybe we come at it from the perspective of Carol Roth, who argues that any idea is only as good as the action you take because of it. In other words, if you have an idea but don't follow through, the idea is worthless. But if you nurture and invest in your idea, it could end up being worth millions or billions.

And even without monetary value, many ideas have intrinsic value because they stem from established knowledge. For example, higher education. Many of us pay thousands of dollars to absorb (hopefully) valuable information, because eventually the information that we absorb will assist us in the workforce. It will help us make a living.

That doesn't mean ideas are always valuable, though. Even college credits can lose value over time, and students, especially those in STEM specialties, have to continually refresh their knowledge after becoming professionals in order to succeed and advance in their jobs. Take doctors. They pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for world-class educations, but they still have to attend conferences and log continuing education to maintain their licenses and to continue practicing.

So what does all of my flip-flopping tell us about the value of ideas in our online communities? Frankly, it tells us that some ideas are worthless and others are gold. The real lesson here, I think, is Roth's notion of taking action to generate value. While we may have valuable ideas hidden away in our communities, if we don't actively monitor our communities, if we don't mine through the activity to find and polish those gems, then our communities become potters fields of industry expertise—repositories of ideas wasted. And as my grandmother tells me to this day: Waste not, want not.

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