An Introduction to Social Capital and Social Currency

By Bob Troia

Two related, but equally-important concepts related to word of mouth are “social capital” and “social currency.”

Social capital can be best defined as an “investment in social relations with expected returns in marketplace.” It deals with the value of an individual’s social network/connections.

For example, let’s say you have a great new product that you’d love to have Oprah talk about on her show (who wouldn’t!). It’s safe to say that Oprah’s social capital is much more valuable than yours or mine – she has a worldwide audience of millions and is one of the wealthiest people in the US with connections to a who’s who of celebrities, business leaders and politicians – so it would be extremely difficult to gain access to her connections/spheres of influence.

Social currency is a term used to describe the value of exchange of information. In a nutshell, social currency acts as an “icebreaker” and is ammunition for conversation. It can come in many forms such as a funny joke, a stock tip, a funny viral video, or juicy gossip, i.e., “I know something you don’t know” – it makes someone look good in a social context and buys respect and admiration. Oprah would happily mention your great new product on her show if she felt the social currency it provided would be of value to her audience and make her look “in the know.” “Water cooler” TV shows work because those who watch them are “in the know” while others feel left out.

Remember the first time someone sent you a link to Subservient Chicken? You probably felt special, like you were privy to something no one else knew about. You quickly emailed the link out to your friends, family and co-workers. Then the mainstream media picked up on it, and soon your inbox was flooded with “check this out” emails! The value of the social currency dropped significantly since it had become old news.

So, how does this all relate to word of mouth and your company, product or service? When developing a word of mouth strategy you need to factor in the social capital of those you are trying to engage/reach (are you trying to reach hip, cool Gen Y-ers, or simply trying to reach people looking for free stuff to try out?) as well as the value of the social currency you can offer them (is your brand/product/service itself remarkable?), or can you provide some level of inside access/content/information which would be of value to your most passionate, outspoken customers and/or potential ones?