Desperately Seeking Social Media ROI

Not sure how your association can measure the ROI of social media? You're not alone. Large and small organizations alike are struggling to figure it out.

If your association is like most, you’ve been experimenting with social media and integrating it into various parts of your work for some time now. If, by now, you’re also wondering (or your CEO or board is asking you) about the return on investment of your social media efforts, well, you’re not alone there, either.

In a survey of association executives conducted by the Southeast Institute of Research and presented at the 2013 Digital Now conference Thursday, 70 percent of respondents said social media is important or very important to their work, but only 17 percent feel they are using it effectively. SIR researchers described that 53 percent gap between importance and effectiveness as uncommonly large.

Large companies face the same challenges smaller organizations and associations do in measuring social media ROI.

So we’re all scratching our heads about whether we’re using social media well, because we can’t figure out how to measure it. It turns out this is not just an association problem. Susan Etlinger, industry analyst at Altimeter Group, said in her Friday keynote at Digital Now that large corporations are struggling with measuring social media as much as anyone else.

“We’re at such an early stage. If you can measure the revenue impact, more power to you. That’s great. If you can say, OK, we ran this campaign and we got 10,000 more people who signed up with us, yay for you,” she said. “But most people can’t really do that, whether they’re for-profit companies or nonprofit, they can’t do that with the same level of rigor that they would expect” in measuring other efforts.

In working with dozens of large companies on their social media measurement, Etlinger said she sees no single benchmark or model method for measuring social media ROI. The most common methods she has found—anecdotal feedback and correlation tracking—are anything but rock solid. Large companies face the same challenges smaller organizations and associations do: disparate sources to track, rapidly changing content and platforms, the question of how to interpret language, and a complete lack of any standard metrics across social media platforms.

“For me what’s been the big lesson is that we just need to get a lot more comfortable with ambiguity, and we have to get a lot more comfortable with not knowing what we don’t know,” she said.

But all hope is not lost. As a first step, Etlinger urges organizations to clearly define how their social media efforts relate to business goals, and then find ways to measure against those goals. (That’s commonsense advice, but an important reminder in a chaotic field.) She shared six common business goals that social media can be tied to:

  • brand health
  • marketing optimization
  • revenue generation
  • operational efficiency
  • customer experience
  • innovation

Among those goals, revenue generation might seem most attractive, but it might be the most difficult, and Etlinger said it is not the leading goal among even large companies using social media. By far, the most common goal and benefit of using social media is gaining insight about customers and communities, she said.

That kind of insight is hard to put a dollar value on, but it’s still a worthy goal for associations that want to better serve their members and professions. By simply listening on social media, “they can learn about what they should be looking at, they can identify risks they might not have seen otherwise, or identify opportunities they might not have seen otherwise,” she said.

For more of Etlinger’s analysis on measuring social media, see her Digital Now presentation slides or the Altimeter report “The Social Media ROI Cookbook.”

(photo by Joe Rominiecki)

Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!