The “ROI of social media” (or lack thereof) is a hot, and still hotly contested, topic. I summarized arguments from both sides a few months ago in The Social Media ROI Debate. More recently, numerous writers including Olivier Blanchard, Neil Glassman and Mark Schaefer have tried to make the case that social media ROI is real, can be measured, and must be measured.

Yet a Bazaarvoice/CMO Club study showed that only 15% of CMOs could point to a “significant return” from Facebook marketing efforts, while 9% report no ROI and 35% basically had no idea. Jacquie McCarman argued in It’s Not Your CEO’s Fault He’s a Social Media Moron that “Most C-levels will scroll down to the bottom line to determine effectiveness of any campaign but what many don’t realize is that the bottom line definitions have changed with this new-fangled internet technology. All of the old measurements are moot.”

Austen Mayor writes that although “executives like numbers,” social media efforts should proceed even without hard ROI attached because “The sooner a company starts climbing the deep functionalities learning curve, the sooner their Klout score will be at a respectable level,” and “social media might be bigger than the industrial revolution in terms of societal effects.” On ClickZ, Heidi Cohen reports that even at this stage, only one in three companies are even trying to measure social media ROI, because doing that is hard, though she also outlines five other social media metrics that matter. And another recent study from McKinsey concluded that, whether you can directly measure ROI or not, companies that embrace social media are more profitable than those who don’t, and “those that fail to implement social media could be making a “critical mistake”.”

It’s challenging to get the metrics really needed to measure social media ROI primarily because social media is much more like public relations than it is like direct marketing or search engine advertising. It can influence your prospects to buy from you, but doesn’t normally lead straight to a purchase. Nevertheless, social media activity consumes resources and therefore must produce business results–or those resources will be spent somewhere else. Marketers need to do the best they can with measurement, but also think about how to move their social media followers, who are often near the top of the purchase funnel, into and along the sales process.

The core of social media marketing efforts should be the corporate blog. Through a blog, marketers become publishers, providing their audience with relevant and valuable content. Publishing has historically relied on advertising, or sponsorships, to pay for content production. Corporate blogs can operate in a similar fashion, except that the sole sponsor or advertiser is the company itself. Essentially, marketers need to (carefully and tactfully) advertise on their own blogs. What should they promote? Here are 20 ideas.

Promote white papers / eBooks / reports for lead generation. According to MarketingSherpa (and many other sources), generating qualified leads remains the top priority for B2B marketers. Use “ads” in your blog sidebar, and in-post text links where appropriate, to drive visitors to your white paper or other gated content download pages. When you come out with a new white paper, summarize one of the main findings in a blog post with a link to the page to download the full document.

Generate webinar registrations. Again, you can “advertise” upcoming webinars in your sidebar. Also, as with white papers, write up a short summary of the webinar in a preview post linked to the signup form. After the webinar (if it’s been recorded), write a follow-up post answering questions from the event and directing visitors to the recorded version online.

Build your email subscriber list. Feature a newsletter signup box prominently near the upper-right corner of your blog. From time to time, write “teaser” posts informing readers of what content they are missing, but could be getting, as a newsletter subscriber.

Invite visitors to hear your experts speak or meet you live. Exhibiting at an upcoming trade show? Speaking at an event? Attending a local tweetup? Let your readers know! Social media is a great way to make more in-real-life contacts.

Get more from your presentations. For those readers who aren’t able to make it to that industry event to hear your product expert speak live, extend the life of that carefully crafted presentation by posting it on a social content sharing site like Slideshare. Include a call to action at the end of the presentation or a link to learn more.

Display testimonials linked to case studies in your sidebar. Your customers’ words are more powerful than your own.

Offer a free trial of your product (if practical).

Link to product information from within your blog posts. While it’s inappropriate to simply write a blog post extolling the wonderfulness of your product or service (that’s a marketing slick, not a helpful blog post), there will be times when, in presenting a solution to a problem, a mention of your product naturally fits in. Or better yet, a text description of your product (e.g. “help desk software” instead of the product name). Link it to the page on your website about that product. Most readers won’t bother clicking on the link, but those who do likely have an interest in the product. And as a side benefit, this is helpful for SEO.

Make your content easy to share by including social sharing buttons on your blog posts. This doesn’t directly lead to ROI, but when readers share your content, they are enhancing your reputation by implicitly giving your their endorsements.

Grow your social network by including links to your Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube channel and other social media points of presence. Again, this doesn’t produce leads directly, but it gives you more “at bats” with your audience.

Integrate social media activities with your CRM system. If there is an individual in your CRM system who is also following you on Twitter, or who likes you on Facebook, or who has left a comment on your blog, that should be noted. If there are several individuals from the same prospect company doing these things, that should really be noted. Don’t pass up the chance to get closer to these people.

Respond to comments (helpfully and appropriately). It’s not always proper to “sell” when responding to a comment, but when pointing someone to information about your products or services that can solve their problems is pertinent, don’t be afraid to do so!

Amplify new product or service announcements (carefully). A blog post isn’t the place to publish a press release, but when apropos, it is a perfectly reasonable place to link to one. Promote the announcement in your sidebar or link to naturally from within a related post.

Answer questions in your blog posts. Some of the most popular posts I’ve written on this blog were essentially extended responses to client questions. Common customer questions will very often pertain to your products or services. Again, while blog posts shouldn’t be too salesy, it’s perfectly acceptable to mention products or services (with links to more information, case studies or white papers) when required to answer an inquiry.

Gather market intelligence. Response rates for email surveys continue to decline; who has the time to answer a survey? (At least without a very attractive incentive to do so.) A corporate blog is a great vehicle, however, for gathering intelligence from your customers and prospects in small chunks. Include a quick poll widget in your sidebar to gather answers to yes/no or multiple choice questions. Ask essay-type questions in your blog posts and encourage readers to answer with a comment.

Showcase your customer support. Got some great support resources online? An active and helpful support forum? A responsive customer support Twitter account? Write about and link to these resources in your blog; customers may need to be reminded, and prospects may (hopefully) be impressed by the breadth and sophistication of your support offerings.

Promote your “evergreen” content and assets. These can be things like lists (e.g., Aira Bongko’s extensive list of Twitter apps or Ken Burbary’s wiki on social media monitoring tools), industry-specific glossaries (like this one on IT service delivery terms), free online tools (HubSpot’s Website Grader has been a phenomenally successful lead generator), collections of resources, free software utilities–the possibilities are limited only by your creativity.

Highlight your partners. If you sell through any kind of channel, find creative ways to link to your partners, either within blog posts (for example, when discussing a specific topic where one of your partners has expertise or writing about a specific geographic region) or even by “advertising” for them in your sidebar. Helping your partners ultimately helps you. Recognition on your blog can even be an incentive for greater performance.

Make it easy for the press to contact you. A well-written blog can be a PR magnet. A journalist is conducting research for a story…finds your blog…is impressed by the facts and knowledge conveyed and wants to learn more. Where do you send them–to a standard blog “contact us” form? A better approach is to make it prominent and easy for members of the media to click directly to your website’s online newsroom or media page. Link to this in your sidebar and on the “About” and “Contact” pages on your blog.

Highlight your company’s community involvement. Okay, this won’t directly produce leads or sales, but it helps spread the kind of publicity that can definitely cast your company in a favorable light, help generate media coverage, and make people more likely to want to do business with you. Be strategic about this; look for opportunities to showcase your company’s expertise while also doing good for society. Two quick examples:

  • A manufacturer of industrial control devices donated some of its products and engineering expertise to students at a local college to help build a solar-powered vehicle for a green energy competition. The car won, but more importantly so did the students, the college, the company (which got some great press and was able to show off it’s engineering capabilities) and, ultimately, perhaps the environment.
  • An IT services firm donated the time of several of its developers to local non-profit groups for a weekend. Again, the non-profits benefited (by getting applications built at no cost, including an improved online donation system for on group), the firm was able to demonstrate the prowess of its developers, and the event was well-covered by local media.

Social media ROI may indeed be challenging to measure, but ultimately, it’s a business activity requiring resources and so it must produce a return. The ideas above are a place to start. Got more? Please share them in the comments.