This post is the continuation of a discussion started on Marketing Profs’ LinkedIn group on July 7th. (If you don’t yet subscribe to the group, consider becoming a part of it.)

Today’s video is actually two videos in one:

The first half (Part 6 of our Social Media ROI series) deals with defining ROI once and for all.

The second half (Part 7 of our Social Media ROI series) starts touching on the “how” of calculating the ROI of Social Media by outlining the investment-action-reaction-impact-return narrative.

If the video doesn’t load for you, you can go watch it here.

Let me start today’s post with a confession: Like many people in the business world, I have  abused the  term “ROI” from time to time. Yes, I admit it, even I have used “ROI” as a relative term on a number of occasions in the past. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

Here are some examples of what I am talking about:

  • Q: What’s the ROI of adding 100 miles to my weekly cycling training?
  • A: Faster race times.
  • Q: What’s the ROI of writing better blog posts?
  • A: More traffic on my blog.

It’s easy to do, especially since sometimes, what you invest into something isn’t necessarily $$$. Perhaps you invested sweat. Perhaps you invested time. Perhaps you invested emotions. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that when the currency is variable, how you measure the “I” in ROI becomes variable as well. For lack of a better term, you start to refer to any kind of positive outcome as “ROI” even when you shouldn’t. It’s an easy habit to fall into, and if you aren’t careful, your definition of ROI can begin to get a little fuzzy. So I get it: I understand why this is confusing to so many folks, especially when it gets thrown into the world of Social Media.

But I’ve also spent enough time with executives (on the client side)  to know that when THEY talk about ROI, the currency is NOT relative. In business terms, the currency implied in any ROI question or discussion is cold hard cash. Period.

Marketing professionals need to understand this: If the investment (the “I”) is $$$, then the return also has to be $$$. It can’t be eyeballs or impressions or clickthroughs. You have to tie your results to a $ amount. Anything short of that, and you’re not proving your value to your boss or client.

It isn’t to say that eyeballs, impressions and clickthroughs aren’t important. They are. But they’re one link (of the action-reaction-outcome narrative) shy of ROI. (They don’t tie the investment to the actual return.)

The best way to explain that narrative is this way:

$ Investment by company –> Action –> Reaction –> Non-financial impact –> Financial impact $

As explained above in the video, the relationship between a company’s investment and the return on that investment pretty much looks like this:


What happens between the investment and the financial impact (the return on that investment) is VERY important. And we’ll talk about the importance of monitoring and measuring it in order to tie the investment to the associated financial impact (and ROI) in future posts. But for now, I want to focus on the fact that eyeballs, impressions, positive WOM and social mention, even click-throughs and net new visits to websites do not constitute relevant currency when we are talking about ROI. Social media is no different here than any other business endeavor in this regard.

Impressions, eyeballs, net new visitors, etc. are forms of non-financial impact. In order to determine ROI, you have to take them to the next step: How they affect financial impact. THEN and only then can you tie the original investment to the return (financial impact/outcome).

roi1I know that bringing “media” measurement into the ROI equation is tempting , especially for folks with agency  or media measurement backgrounds. That’s what the model has been for PR, Advertising and other marketing-specific firms for decades. And again media measurement is vital here, but when it comes to calculating ROI, that type of measurement is a lot like calculating a crop’s yield by estimating how many of X number of planted seeds will germinate come harvest time. It doesn’t work that way. You have to roll up your sleeves come harvest time *and physically count what the actual yield is. You actually have to do the work. ROI isn’t about potential. It’s about actual performance.

(*Luckily there is no seasonal constraint like a “harvest” in the business world, so ROI measurement – like most performance measurement – can be continuous.)

In order to adequately determine ROI, you must first understand how all the pieces fit. You have to see the entire equation, from start to finish. There is an order to how things happen, how, and why. You have to see  how A leads to B leads to C in order to understand how an investment turns into a success or a failure, and to what degree. You also have to understand that the value of a pair of eyeballs, of an impression, is subjective until that pair of eyeballs actually does something. Then the body attached to that pair of eyeballs becomes one of three things: A browser, an influencer or a transacting customer. The first two don’t actualize a financial impact (yet). The third does. That’s where we want to focus when dealing with ROI.

Though we can infer and assign an estimated $ value to browsers and influencers, these values are subjective at best , usually measured in hindsight, and subject to change at any moment for any reason. So their value still falls into the category of non-actualized potential for now. (We will look at the financial impact of influencers in an upcoming post. No worries.) For the purpose of ROI calculation, however, you want to work with cold hard numbers. Not estimates, not potential, not yet-to-happen transactions, but “actualized dollars.” Real revenue from actual sales. Financial returns you can take to the bank and tie step by step through the above chain back to the initial investment.

(Incidentally, financial impact (ROI) manifests itself either as increased revenue or cost savings. Sometimes, ROI is revenue-neutral but cut costs internally. The model I just described above applies ti revenue-generated ROI.)

All of this to say that we have to be VERY careful not to a) mistake non-financial impact with ROI, and b) not to try and redefine “ROI” when dealing with business execs. (They won’t buy into “Return on Influence” or “Return on Interest” for very long, and anyone using these terms runs the risk of losing credibility with pragmatic decision makers in the C-suite.) Social Media is fun, but this is not a game.  If a client doesn’t ask about ROI, great! Awesome. They probably get how Social Media is going to help them build relationships with customers and improve everything about their business. So to them, ROI is implied. It’s understood. It isn’t something they are going to worry about anytime soon. But when a client DOES ask about ROI, you have to a) understand what they are asking, and b) know how to adequately answer their questions and put measurement systems in place that will suit their needs and particular culture.

I hope this was helpful. Next, we’ll talk about the importance of timelines in the ROI determination process. (The next piece of the puzzle.)

By the way, if the video didn’t load properly for you or if you are accessing this post from a mobile device, you can go watch the video here (thanks Viddler).