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Explaining “Social Media ROI” AGAIN. And Again. And… Again.

Explaining “Social Media ROI” AGAIN. And Again. And… Again. image manifestation

Maybe I should just republish this post every day for the next ten years (or however long it takes for content bloggers, social media “gurus” and marketing authors/speakers to get this).

With a little repetition – and surely with enough time – even the dumbest and most obtuse of them will eventually get it.

Maybe.

As annoying and curious as it was, back in 2009, when so many so-called “experts” and “gurus” couldn’t figure out how to explain, much less determine the ROI of anything relating to social media, it is inexcusable today, less than a month from 2012. We’ve talked about this topic how many times? I and others have presented on the topic in how many countries? On how many continents? For how many years now?

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How many times has this simple business 101 topic been explained and explained and explained? Even if somehow, some social media “experts” have managed to miss the presentations, the conversations, the podcasts, the interviews, the decks on slideshare and the blog posts, there’s a book now that spends 300 pages on the topic. At the very least, they should have heard a rumor that the “question” had been answered. Right? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?

What else can we do? Take out full page ads in the New York Times? Take over Mashable for a month? Buy a banner ad on Klout’s home page? What will it take for the asshats pretending to be experts to stop talking about ROI as if it were some arcane mythical metric?

Seriously, you have to be either completely disconnected from the channels you claim to be an expert participant in, or purposely avoiding this stuff to still get it wrong. Will some so-called “experts” really live out their lives without ever finding social media ROI? If so, isn’t that a sign that perhaps they need to go try their hands at being experts in another field?

Makes you wonder about these people’s qualifications. What makes them experts again? A few hundred blog posts and some keynote presentations? A “personal brand?” A lot of followers?

Here’s a simple litmus test for you: Experts know their stuff. A self-professed expert who doesn’t know his stuff is just a windbag. If you don’t want to be categorized as the latter, immerse yourself in the field you aim to be an expert in. Commit to it for years and years and years. Writing a few blog posts about something doesn’t make you an expert in it, no matter how hard you want to believe it does.

Utterly ignorant nonsense: The battle-cry of new religion of digital windbags?

First, this gem from @CopyBlogger‘s CFO, Mr. Sean Jackson. (A few of my favorite quotes from that post):

“Marketing ROI has become so important that no one questions its validity, but the truth is, marketing will never produce an ROI. [...]  The problem for marketing professionals is that marketing activity is not an investment. An investment is an asset that you purchase and place on your Balance Sheet. Like an office building or a computer system. It’s something you could sell later if you didn’t need it any more. Marketing is an expense, and goes on the Profit & Loss statement.”

WHAT?! Are you kidding me?!

And yet in the same interview, Mr. Jackson continues with this:

“Sales generate revenue. Marketing generates profits.”

WHAT?! Sure, it sounds pretty, but how does that work, exactly? How do you calculate profits if… Oh, never mind…

“Marketing, including social media marketing, is about efficiency. Marketing is a process of decreasing the time, money, and resources required to communicate with customers and make it easy for them to buy products and services. The more efficient your marketing is, the more profit you make. That’s what you want to optimize for. By defining marketing as a function of profits, you create a new perception within your organization about the value of marketing.”

Since Sean is a CFO, I have to assume that he knows how to calculate profit on a balance sheet. … The very balance sheet as the one on which Marketing is nothing but “an expense”?

Look, if marketing can’t produce ROI, then it can’t generate a profit. A profit is a function of ROI. Profit is the very manifestation of the expectation of ROI: You invest in something, use it, and hope it generates enough revenue to cover your investment and other operational costs, and… wait for it… turn a profit.

This is Business 101 stuff. Seriously, it is. Little kids running lemonade stands know this.

If you are going to claim that marketing is about profits, then you have to concede that marketing plays a part in cutting costs or generating revenue. Once you realize that, ROI becomes obviously relevant to marketing spend. Marketing does generate ROI, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. And yet, shit like this gets published. (Yes, shit.)

Example #2: David Meerman Scott’s piece entitled “Social Media ROI Hypocrisy.”

The post’s elegant tag-line:

“New research – published here for the first time – proves that executives who demand that Social Media ROI be calculated are hypocrites.”

Nice. Here’s more:

“It’s ridiculous that executives require marketers to calculate ROI (Return on Investment) on one form of real-time communications: Social media like Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. Yet they happily pay for other real-time communications devices for employees like Blackberrys, iPhones, and iPads without a proven ROI.”

And my favorite:

“My recommendation to you when faced with executives who demand that you prove social media ROI is to point out the hypocrisy by asking them to show you the ROI of their Blackberry.”

Here’s my recommendation to you: Don’t answer an executive who asks you about ROI with “what’s the ROI of your blackberry?”

Why? Because it’s rude, unprofessional, and it only serves to prove two things: 1. You’re an asshole, and 2. you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Here’s a better way: If an executive bothered to ask you a question that matters to his or her business, answer it. If you can’t, recommend someone who can. It’s the least you can do. The idea being to help the client, not show him how much of a smug smartass you are.

Speaking of questions: Either answer them or go home.

I have heard it suggested that many corporate executives use the ROI “question” as an excuse to object to social media spend. Let’s talk about that for a minute.

Corporate execs have very busy schedules. Believe it or not, they don’t waste their time listening to your sales pitches knowing, before they walk into the room, that they are going to turn you down. Do you really think they sit around all day hoping someone will come in to talk to them about social media just so they can use their favorite “ROI objection” trick on them? They have companies to run. Either  produce a way to help them do that or stop wasting their time.

Here’s a double dose of reality for you: When corporate executives ask you about ROI with respect to social media, they are motivated by 2 things:

1. They want to know how social media spend will benefit them so they can justify the expense. Understanding the potential value of an investment is pretty basic business practice, and a sound one. What did you expect? A blank check and a 5-year consulting contract just because you spoke at Blogworld and your Klout score is awesome? What world do you live in?

2. They want to know if you know your shit or if you are just another windbag blogger “guru” with no business management acumen. They get pitched by two dozen bullshit social media experts per week. This is their test. Either pass it or f— off.

Four final thoughts:

1. When business executives take the time to meet with you, reward their time investment by not being an asshole. (i.e. Not asking them about the ROI of their blackberry is a good start.) Answer their questions that’s why you’re there in the first place.

2. If you don’t know how to answer an executive’s ROI questions, guess what: You aren’t qualified to advise them on the matter. Sorry.

3. Whether or not you believe that ROI is a relevant topic of discussion when it comes to integrating social dynamics and platforms into a business doesn’t matter. You are mistaking a philosophical discussion with a practical one. Explain the principles first. Answer their questions. Help them get through that first phase (justification). THEN discuss with them the positive intangibles of building a more social company. They are testing your knowledge, not your religion.

4. If the same executives aren’t measuring the ROI of other things (like advertising campaigns, product development, websites, or even marketing in general,) show them how. It’s a hell of a lot more valuable than calling them hypocrites for not having done it until now. Be a positive agent of change, not just another smug asshole on their payroll.

Moving on…

The rest of this post won’t make you an expert, but it will at least give you the basics.

If you are still having trouble explaining or understanding the intricacies of social media R.O.I., chances are that…

1. You are asking the wrong question.

Do you want to know what one of the worst questions dealing with the digital world is right now? This:

What is the ROI of Social Media?

It isn’t that the idea behind the question is wrong. It comes from the right place. It aims to answer 2 basic business questions: Why should I invest in this, (or rather, why should I invest in this rather than the other thing?), and what kind of financial benefit can I expect from it?

The problem is that the question can’t be answered as asked: Social media in and of itself has no cookie-cutter ROI. The social space is an amalgam of channels, platforms and activities that can produce a broad range of returns (and often none at all). When you ask “what is the social media or ROI,” do you mean to have Facebook’s profit margins figure in the answer? Twitter’s? Youtube’s? Every affiliate marketing blog’s ROI thrown in as well?

The question is too broad. Too general. It is like asking what the ROI of email is. Or the ROI of digital marketing. What is the ROI of social media? I don’t know… what is the ROI of television?

If you are still stuck on this, you have probably been asking the wrong question.

2. To get the right answer, ask the right question.

The question, then, is not what is the ROI of social media, but rather what is the ROI of [insert activity here] in social media?

To ask the question properly, you have to also define the timeframe. Here’s an example:

What was the ROI of [insert activity here] in social media for Q3 2011?

That is a legitimate ROI question that relates to social media. Here are a few more:

What was the ROI of shifting 20% of our customer service resources from a traditional call center to twitter this past year?

What was the ROI of shifting 40% of our digital budget from traditional web to social media in 2011?

What was the ROI of our social media-driven raspberry gum awareness campaign in Q1?

These are proper ROI questions.

3. The unfortunate effect of asking the question incorrectly.

What is the ROI of social media? asks nothing and everything at once. It begs a response in the interrogative: Just how do you mean? In instances where either educational gaps or a lack of discipline prevail, the vagueness of the question leads to an interpretation of the term R.O.I., which has already led many a social media “expert” down a shady path of improvisation.

This is how ROI went from being a simple financial calculation of investment vs. gain from investment to becoming any number of made-up equations mixing unrelated metrics into a mess of nonsense like this:

Social media ROI = [(tweets – followers) ÷ (comments x average monthly posts)] ÷ (Facebook shares x facebook likes) ÷ (mentions x channels used) x engagement

Huh?!

Equations like this are everywhere. Companies large and small have paid good money for the privilege of glimpsing them. Unfortunately, they are complete and utter bullshit. They measure nothing. Their aim is to confuse and extract legal tender from unsuspecting clients, nothing more. Don’t fall for it.

4. Pay attention and all the social media R.O.I. BS you have heard until now will evaporate in the next 90 seconds.

In case you missed it earlier, don’t think of ROI as being medium-specific. Think of it as activity-specific.

Are you using social media to increase sales of your latest product? Then measure the ROI of that. How much are you spending on that activity? What KPIs apply to the outcomes being driven by that activity? What is the ratio of cost to gain for that activity? This, you can measure. Stop here. Take it all in. Grab a pencil and a sheet of paper and work it out.

Once you grasp this, try something bigger. If you want to measure the ROI of specific activities across all media, do that. If you would rather focus only on your social media activity, go for it. It doesn’t really matter where you measure your cost to gain equation. Email, TV, print, mobile, social… it’s all the same. ROI is media-agnostic. Once you realize that your measurement should focus on the relationship between the activity and the outcome(s), the medium becomes a detail. ROI is ROI, regardless of the channel or the technology or the platform.

That’s the basic principle. To scale that model and determine the ROI of the sum of an organization’s social media activities, take your ROI calculations for each desired outcome, each campaign driving these outcomes, and each particular type of activity within their scope, then add them all up. Can measuring all of that be complex? You bet. Does it require a lot of work? Yes. It’s up to you to figure out if it is worth the time and resources.

If you have limited resources, you may decide to calculate the ROI of certain activities and not others. You’re the boss. But if you want to get a glimpse of what the process looks like, that’s it in its most basic form.

5. R.O.I. isn’t an afterthought.

Guess what: Acquiring Twitter followers and Facebook likes won’t drive a whole lot of anything unless you have a plan. In other words, if your social media activity doesn’t deliberately drive ROI, it probably won’t accidentally result in any.

This is pretty key. Don’t just measure a bunch of crap after the fact to see if any metrics jumped during the last measurement period. Think about what you will want to measure ahead of time, what metrics you will be looking to influence. Think more along the lines of business-relevant metrics than social media metrics like “likes” and “follows,” which don’t really tell you a whole lot.

6. R.O.I. isn’t always relevant.

Repeat after me: Not all social media activity needs to drive ROI.

Technical support, accounts receivable, digital reputation management, digital crisis management, R&D, customer service… These types of functions are not always tied directly to financial KPIs. Don’t force them into that box.

This is an important point because it reveals something about the nature of the operational integration of social media within organizations: Social media isn’t simply a “community management” function or a “content” play. Its value to an organization isn’t measured primarily in the obvious and overplayed likesfollowers, retweets and clickthroughs, or even in impressions or estimated media value. Social media’s value to an organization, whether translated into financial terms (ROI) or not, is determined by its ability to influence specific outcomes. This could be anything from the acquisition of new transacting customers to an increase in positive recommendations, from an increase in buy rate for product x to a positive shift in sentiment for product y, or from a boost in customer satisfaction after a contact with a CSR to the attenuation of a PR crisis.

In other words, for an organization, the value of social media depends on two factors:

1. The manner in which social media can be used to pursue a specific business objective.

2. The degree to which specific social media activity helped drive that objective.

In instances where financial investment and financial gain are relevant KPIs, this can turn into ROI. In instances where financial gain is not a relevant outcome, ROI might not matter one bit.

Having said that, you still need to understand these mechanisms in order to make good business decisions, so learn them.

Explaining “Social Media ROI” AGAIN. And Again. And… Again. image billboard 66

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By the way, Social Media ROI – the book – doesn’t just talk about measurement and KPIs. It provides a simple framework with which businesses of all sizes can develop, build and manage social media programs in partnership with digital agencies or all on their own. Check it out at www.smroi.net, or look for it at fine bookstores everywhere.

Click here to read a free chapter.

Comments on this Article: 1

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  1. Delicious information and well presented. I am a social media ” exxpert” . That means i know what i am talking about as it relates to my industries and the specific goals i have been charged to attain…..goals are different for virtually every company or brand… Mike Kiirner ……marketing & social media director

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