The ROI of content and social media marketing is a touchy subject right now. While companies white-knuckle the roller coaster ride from outbound to inbound marketing, many rightly ask for data to back up the hype. “Where are the best practices?” they ask. “Where is the research…the numbers that prove all this actually works?”

Meanwhile, new media pundits struggle to answer the question. The tools are still so new that established best practices (the past) give way to seat-of-your-pants innovation (the future).

Exciting? Yes, but difficult to measure and prove in a spreadsheet.

While some aspects of content marketing and social media (number of followers, RSS subscribers and comments) are easy to measure, others seem next to impossible. How does one prove that your brilliant blog post influenced a buyer to move forward with the deal a little more quickly? How do we point a straight line from A to Z?

While social media and content marketing professionals would love nothing more than to report on “sales resulting from Facebook page,” the truth is that there are too many variables that occur between the discovery of a company’s content and the final sale to give a 100% accurate conclusion of cause and effect. Some sales are easier to track to their content roots, like a registered webinar attendee. Most aren’t.

Consider the following as you ponder the ROI question and your decision to move forward with a content marketing strategy.

The best content solves problems for your market. It puts the customer’s needs first, making their life a little easier, a little better. It makes use of all that wonderful, unique insight you and your team have earned from years of experience in your particular line of work.

Now ask yourself if your company is the type that, like great content, puts its customers’ needs first, that works toward a meaningful purpose of which profit is certainly a necessary part, but not the sole motivator. Ask yourself if you and your employees go to work every day with a mission, a sense that what you do matters and that you’re proud to do it.

The answers to these questions will make the content marketing/social media ROI solution obvious. If the answer is yes, then publishing content that helps your market, your audience, your prospective clients and customers solve important problems is a natural extension of that philosophy.

If the answer is no, that you’re solely in the business of making money, and that the products and services you sell are merely means to that end, then save yourself the trouble and don’t bother with content marketing regardless of its potential ROI.

Why? Because your content will probably suck anyway.

It will be self serving. It will be thinly veiled promotion, advertorials posing as resources. It will lack any hint of meaning or interest in your readers. It will just add to the noise.

And it will be ignored.

The real investments of content marketing are your ideas, solutions and insights. The ROI dilemma isn’t just about the money. It’s about the mission.