Social Media: What is the ROI?

Social media measurement is one of those topics about which everyone has an opinion, but nobody agrees on the solution. The question about how to measure the return on investment (ROI) for social media participation, as definitive, statistic-based metrics seem to be the primary way communicators feel they can secure approval and budget for these programs from their management teams.

 The ROI (return on investment) is how much profit or cost saving is realized, for a given use of money in an enterprise,. An ROI calculation is sometimes used along with other approaches to develop a business case for a given proposal. The overall ROI for an enterprise is sometimes used as a way to grade how well a company is managed.

Return on investment (ROI) measures how effectively a business uses its capital to generate profit; the higher the ROI, the better. ROI is arguably the most popular metric to use when comparing the attractiveness of one investment to another.

Since “Social Media & ROI” is a topic of much discussion it should be interesting to read a few expert commentaries:

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Aaron Uhrmacher, a Social Media Consultant, writes: “If you’re waiting for someone to provide that magic bean, then put away your watering can. It ain’t gonna happen. That’s one of the reasons why I tend to think that social media (by which I mean actual conversations and relationship building exercises, not widgets and Facebook) is more aligned with the goals of a PR program than it is with marketing.

In the absence of any accepted metrics, businesses still need to be able to determine whether or not a social media program is moving the needle, moving product or otherwise making an impact. This largely depends on the company’s social media objectives. Because these dramatically differ based on the organization, it’s impossible to agree upon standards. That doesn’t mean we can’t measure ROI at the company level, regardless of how your company chooses to measure engagement, is that you have a success metric in mind before you begin. Without some sort of benchmark, it’s impossible to determine your ROI.”

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“The Rocket Blog” writes: “It’s all about the relationships, baby! When we are trying to convince people to do social media, the first question they will ask is, “What is the Return on Investment? As in dollars?” Well that is pretty difficult to measure.  “The problem with trying to determine ROI for social media is you are trying to put numeric quantities around human interactions and conversations, which are not quantifiable,” says Jason Falls from Social Media Explorer.

In social media it is much easier to measure how many people are following you, linking to you and befriending you. The companies that are well known for successful Social Media Marketing (SMM) campaigns will be the first to tell you there is value in SMM but it’s not always measured in dollars. The value is in the relationships that you create with your customers and community”.  
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Augustine Fou writes:  “A year and half ago I wrote the column, “The ROI of Social Media Is Zero”. Today, I assert that the ROI of social media is still zero. Let me explain. A September 2010 survey by ‘Econsultancy’ found nearly half the respondents said they were not able to measure the return on investment of social media activities or even compare it to the return of other marketing activities. This comes on the heels of another study in April 2010 by ‘R2 Integrated’ which showed that the biggest obstacle to using social media is the respondents’ belief that there is not enough data or analytics with which to calculate a return.

Let me introduce a way to think about social media investment which may help to align spending and actions – “social media total value of ownership.” Just like companies shifted to thinking about the total cost of ownership versus the one-time cost of capital purchases (e.g., computer hardware), companies should think of the longer-term “total value of ownership” for social media.

So, if companies start to think of the “social media total value of ownership” or the “lifetime value of social media” they would allocate spending as if it were a longer-term investment to create assets which produce value over time. The short-term, campaign-based ROI of social media will likely still be zero, as the payoff comes in other forms and accrues to the advertiser over time”.

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Joe Chernov, Director of Content for Eloqua, a marketing automation software provider, writes “When it comes to social media, tracking ROI may be fool’s gold. A distraction. A red herring. A trap. It’s something your CMO might demand, but chasing it could be your undoing. Why? Two reasons.

First, social content spreads only when it’s “set free.” A form – even a short one – is the fastest way to “cure” content of its virility. Influencers won’t spread even the most share-worthy materials if their followers are required to self-identify before viewing. To them, gates (and the marketers who install them) tear the very fabric of the social Web.

Avoid the ROI trap by looking instead at leading indicators. Ask what behavior is consistent with your best customers? (Do they view your online demos? Maybe they register for your webinars? Are there pages on your website that they visit disproportionately?) Map the lifts in desirable prospect behavior to corresponding spikes in social media activities. Successful social marketing should correlate to purchase-ready indicators.

The second trap is that blind pursuit of ROI is likely to tempt you into applying a campaign model to your social media efforts. As marketing superstar Paul Dunay of Avaya cautioned, “social media is not a campaign, it’s a commitment.”  To reduce relationship-building to one-off promotions is to reduce a friendship to a single interaction. It just doesn’t work that way.

Of course, it is certainly possible to run a social media campaign designed to accomplish a single objective. Depending on the objective, it may even be relatively easy to assign ROI to the program. But don’t confuse a discrete project with a fully integrated program. Integrating social media across marketing, sales, public relations, events, support and recruiting should be your ultimate goal. Not figuring out how many sales a Facebook contest might have triggered.

When put in that context, it is not only daunting to measure the true financial impact of social marketing … it’s also limiting. A more appropriate comparison would be a lighthouse. How many ships reached port safely thanks to the presence of a lighthouse? The answer, while impossible to quantify, is self-evident”.

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Denis Pombriant, Managing Principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm, and he writes “We’ve been in the “Gee, isn’t this cool technology?” phase for a while now with social CRM, and perhaps that time has been extended by the recession. Fewer companies are willing to take on something that has little track record when the name of the game is revenue. It has to be able to show an ROI. Massive collaboration leads to unique intellectual property.

Sometimes I feel like we’re “Stuck in the Weeds” with social CRM. I know, there are plenty of examples of analyses that say what a wonderful job social media does in connecting everyone or improving the customer experience, but the discussion tends to stop there. If it went on — which, I admit, it sometimes does — it would talk about the wonderful reasons for caring to connect everyone, namely the opportunity for mass collaboration.

Even more important than figuring this out — I am sure you already did, I am just slow — is that for social CRM to be an important attribute leading us out of the recession, it has to be able to show an ROI, and I think this is how you do it. Massive collaboration leads to unique intellectual property. What could be better?

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Dan Robles, Director of The Ingenesist Project, a private think tank in Seattle, writes: “The quick answer is that ROI is indeterminable – get over it. ROI is a static measurement where financial decision makers look into the Crystal Ball to project a future economic outcome which is then be protracted back into the present to arrive at a value of an investment opportunity.  In case you have not noticed, this valuation method is largely bankrupt.

Fortunately, the true visionaries of the next economic paradigm are increasing in numbers and rapidly moving away from the ROI model into something far more valuable simply by asking the serious questions…… David Bullock and Jay Deragon from the ‘Social Media Connection Network’ are investigating the currency of social media where they astutely ask the tough questions, “What are people trading?” and “what is a Tweet worth?” While these may seem like simple questions, they have many an ROI expert stumped. The value of social media is counted in “options” – not ROI. 

ROI is a future projection brought to the present.  “Options” are collected in the present and projected to the future – there is a fundamental difference between the two that must not be overlooked.  People are doing something, they have a plan, they are cooking up a new trick and the ROI is indeterminable…

“Options” have value and obviously people are willing to pay for them with their time at a keyboard, therefore, they are willing to pay for them through any medium of exchange.  This is what people are doing on social media – collecting “options”. The Next Economic Paradigm will provide a means to cash in those “options”. Hold on to your chips, the social media game is far from over”.

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 “What’s the ROI of Social Media?” by Steve Woodruff writes: “I hear that question all the time, and it drives me crazy. What’s the ROI of your cell phone? What’s the ROI of using a computer? What’s the ROI of breathing?

At one point, it was legitimate to think about the ROI of, say, a cell phone. But no more. It’s simply an assumed part of doing business, and living. You might think about the return on a specific model or plan, but you don’t wonder any more if you should use a cell phone or a smartphone. It’s about as much a question mark as getting dressed in the morning.

That’s why it’s silly to ask, “What’s the ROI of Social Media?” Instead, we should ask, “what’s the potential ROI of this or that specific social media tactic or campaign?” Because you don’t measure the ROI of an assumed cost of doing business. You don’t ask for the ROI of a medium. You determine if that medium/channel/approach is going to be a viable and potentially profitable place to be. Then you create a strategy. Then you look at the harder metrics of ROI over time on a tactical level, while also seeking to measure “softer” and, when possible, harder $$ returns on the use of that medium over the long haul.

Social Media/Networked Communications are a fact of life. And, there are some things we do because we know that, in the long run, they make business better. What’s the ROI of honesty and transparency? Don’t look for some short-term dollar figure – look at the long-term reputation value. What’s the ROI of getting closer to your customers, of improving communications, of putting a human face on your business, of being part of the marketplace dialogue, of creating strategic serendipity? What’s the ROI of creating opportunities through people-connections? When something is the right thing to do, you do it, knowing that in the long-term, it’s good for business.

That’s why we should instantly dismiss the question, “What’s the ROI of Social Media?” It’s exactly the wrong question. Should companies be involved in networked communications? In every way that makes sense, yes – because it’s smart, it’s right, it’s where the people are. Now – what specific strategies are best, and what measurable tactics should be employed? That’s when we move into ROI territory. Then again, you can always take comfort in the return on doing nothing…”