How do you measure social media return on investment (ROI)? Some comms and marketing professionals laugh at the idea of measuring social media ROI, while others sincerely search for answers.

It doesn’t help that the social media ‘experts’ have differing answers which are often vague comments around ‘we use analytics’. This isn’t another article telling you the latest and coolest analytic tools. I’ve seriously been considering the concept of social ROI and looking for answers in my own role. This has led me to find a truth that I believe to be true about social media ROI.

Let’s start by looking at how to measure social ROI.

It begins with a goal

Any serious communications plan has a goal, and as a communications channel, social media comes under that plan and should therefore contribute to achieving your goal. This can help explain why sometimes social media ROI is so vague – it depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

If you are trying to increase sales, then comments on a Facebook page may not be as valuable to you as if you’re running a community feedback forum. This is a basic example, but it shows that ROI really depends on what you value.

Here’s another way to think of it: If your overall goal isn’t worth the investment, then your social media efforts won’t be either.

Are we doing public relations or marketing? 

This is related to knowing your goal. I believe one of the biggest reasons there is still confusion over ROI is because people aren’t sure whether they’re doing PR or Marketing.

To an outsider, they’re similar, but we know different. Marketing ROI will always ask the question: How will this help us improve our bottom line? PR and communications, on the other hand, can have many different end goals – for example, consider the different goals of fundraising, crisis communications, community forums and election campaigns.

Never forget that just because the world likes to call it ‘social media marketing’ or ‘content marketing’ that it is necessarily actually just ‘marketing’.

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Why is it so hard?

It’s pretty simple really: social media is social. When has it ever been easy to put a numerical measure on a relationship? Even with awesome analytic tools, in the end, there will always be more to it than numbers. That’s why when you say ‘we’ve only got 2 comments on this post’, there can be a ‘but’. We’ve only 2 comments, but they are really huge names and this is SO exciting!

What’s in a ‘like’?

So how do we really measure the value of a like, favourite, double-tap, view, comment, retweet, pin or plus one? It helps to consider these questions when determining your social ROI:

1. How much does this like/view/comment (etc) contribute towards achieving our goal or objectives?

Think about whether or not it directly achieves your objectives or just contributes to the path towards achieving your objectives. For example, if one of your objectives involves ‘high community awareness’ then ‘views’ are much more valuable than if your objective was ‘raise $X’.

Yes, it can be argued that ‘views’ contribute to both of these objectives, just in different ways – and that’s the point. This involves opinion and it’s up to you to decide how much each social media analytic contributes to your objectives/goal.

2. Could we achieve our goal without social media?

You know these days it can be really hard to achieve some goals without social media. Think about the value that social media as a communication channel actually adds to your overall campaign or plan. Are you using social media to reach your publics or to feel tech-savvy? Is it crucial or not really necessary?

3. What would be the perfect result you could imagine for your campaign using social media? Is this realistic? Where does the most value come from?

For example, maybe this perfect scenario relies heavily on people sharing your content, or maybe it relies most heavily on people submitting an entry on your Facebook page competition. This is similar to the first question, but I think it can really help.

For example, do you really need 5000 followers, or just the 800 of your actual target market? If you’ve already got the people you want to reach right there available to you, then you won’t need to focus as much on how far your campaign reaches outside of your followers.

So really, the best way to measure social ROI begins with an understanding of what adds the most value to you, which explains why everyone has different answers.

When I present our social media results to some of our stakeholders, of course we use numbers to show different things like reach and engagement. But I always add in a few examples of big names who interacted with us, passionate and positive comments, and examples of what those posts being shared looks like on social media.

There will always be numbers, but it’s those qualitative examples which really show value and get our stakeholders excited. In fact, the qualitative results usually help show our successes, whereas quantitative results are really good at helping us spot weaknesses that we can get stronger in. This is one way I like to think about it, but that’s just me.

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So what is the big truth I’ve come to understand?

It’s that in the end, understanding the success of your social media efforts will come down to how well you achieved your overall goal and objectives, and how well social media contributed towards this. You can’t accurately measure social media ROI independent of your wider communications plan.

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