There are still no shortcuts to Social Media ROI

Last year I sat on a few panels that dealt with issues the social media industry has been waxing lyrical about for years; ROI, standards and such. The first – that of measurement – is the Holy Grail for anyone working in this space. Still. Rolling out ‘it’s all about being human’ or ‘you can engage with your audience on a completely different level’ just doesn’t cut it anymore. Yes, these two points are relevant when you’re looking at the value of investment in social – but that’s totally different to working out the return.

I noticed that during one particular session, there was a definite lack of footfall in the room in comparison to other panels on different topics. Were we approaching this from too broad an angle? Are people only interested in panels that provide three-step approaches to finding a definite answer, and anything else isn’t worth it?

I’ve thought on this several times, and have come to the conclusion that yes – part of the entire psychology of attending an event is to be able to walk away, report back to your office and provide clear steps to implement what you’ve seen. That way you’re able to prove that attending was worthwhile. For social it’s not quite that simple. Of course, this is also pleasing proof that levels of awareness are such that broader topics aren’t as useful as they used to be – people are now fully on board with the idea of social, its value, what can be done – and are starting to look for more specific advice. How can I link up my email database with social following to provide better, more appropriate communication? What type of social functionality should I be including within my website? Is social commerce worth investing in? How should I structure my social profiles taking masterbrand and local markets into consideration? I could go on.

Returning to the issue of providing direct guidance on measurement. The reason why panels related to this topic still have such vague titles is that there’s no shared opinion when it comes to ROI within social. Agencies, trade bodies, brands; we all approach it in different ways. There are no industry standards; there are no ‘must do’ tactics (despite what the most vocal within our industry might say). There’s best practice, yes, but there’s no universally recognised way of working out what social media can really get you for your money.

You could argue that there are other areas that suffer the same fate, but social is (still) the new kid on the block – with more people claiming they have the answer than any other. With so many people selling the Emperor new clothes, chaos reigns supreme.

When you get down to it, there’s really only two ways of looking at the value of social.

The first is the most simplistic – whereby you consider the ROI of marketing investment. You look at how much you spend on marketing, and you set this off against; sales (very difficult and often producing not very impressive numbers), interaction (are people talking about us and therefore are we creating brand awareness) or slightly more complex comparisons where you take a focus group of social ‘fans’ (on Facebook, Twitter etc), compare their likelihood to purchase a product and such – then align with standard brand-tracking so that the data holds up in the context of other disciplines.

There’s enough to disagree about right there, but it’s actually the second method where things come unstuck. The bigger picture means looking at the entire spectrum of gains that include (among others) enhanced business intelligence, improved reputation, more effective management of the customer experience, the ability to link and amplify real-world events, improved business performance and more rapid NPD. In this case, both financial and non-financial gains come into play, and you start getting into complex, company-specific econometric modelling.

And that’s the crux of it. It’s unlikely that you’ll come up with an answer to this in an hour. What you can do with that time is assess the various approaches and then return to base to decide whether they’re suitable for your business, what kind of data they’ll provide you and what you can do with it. Whichever method you choose, when it comes to assessing the value OR return of social activity; there aren’t any shortcuts.

Vikki Chowney is head of community, TMW.