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I was a panelist on a Google Hangout hosted by Joel Windels of Brandwatch, on Connecting social to dollars: How do you measure social media ROI? It was a powerful discussion with some great talking points, and here are a few highlights:

Is it worthwhile to measure the ROI of social media or is it something that can’t be measured in money?

It was interesting to find out what the other experts had to say on the topic. Lauren Perkins, CEO of Perks Consulting said that it’s important to start with business outcomes. Many times the C-suite are ROI motivated and want to see an immediate return from social, and it can be difficult for managers to overcome that mindset without first knowing what your C-Suite wants out of the overall business. Understanding the big picture will give you a better way to set expectations and create an internal mindset that’s outcome driven.

I think that all too often, ROI is thought of as dollars and cents, when we should really be thinking more in terms of value. Value is measured in many different ways, so it all depends on your goals.

In today’s world we need to be more fearless in order to innovate, and stop looking at social as a cost-center when it should be viewed as an investment. Mike Alton, CMO of SiteSell said that most people are still being careful—they’re being safe—trying to do what they’ve always done, which isn’t going to get better results. He advocates a bolder approach—standing up for what you think is the right way to move forward whether you’re talking to the C-suite or the rest of your team.

I think there are several things that a manager or director can do to set the stage for measuring social in the right way. First, find a champion at a higher level, whether it’s C-suite or VP—someone to whom you can explain your position and who will back you, or at least give you feedback on how to do it better. That person is going to have a bigger voice and be able to get you in front of the people that matter.

Second, give them what they want (at least at first). Everybody wants to measure things the way they’ve always measured them, so give them numbers to which they can relate, whether it’s impressions or followers or whatever that number is—even if you don’t think that’s the most important metric.

Third, have some balls and just freaking do it, even if you have to do it for yourself so you can point to results you’ve been able to achieve. At every brand I’ve worked with, I’ve built my own personal brand on social. You can do this for yourself and hold it up as an example to your company.

The ROI of social media really ties into influence—how much influence does your brand have in the marketplace? How can we use social tools to make it better? In this age of influence any individual can build a brand, effect change and make a difference. They can do it from their home 24/7. As a company, you can surface influence within your organization by empowering employees to build their personal brands, which in turn will build your brand’s influence within your marketplace. Support them with training and by co-creating content with them and you can scale your company’s influence.

But what about brands not selling directly online? How does what they do on social impact sales and how can that be measured?

Lots of companies ask this question, but the reality is that there’s no single answer. Before our hangout, Joel Windels penned an article that explored various aspects of social ROI. Yes, some brands like Coca Cola are correlating social media usage with sales revenue, but there is no one-size-fits-all template for success across industries.

We talked about the B2B brands having a smaller universe. Eric Tung, the Digital Recruiting Evangenlist of BMC Software, mentioned that B2B brands often have high dollar products with long sales cycles of 12 to 36 months, so for a highly specialized technology with a half-million dollar price tag, there may be only 50 potential customers for that product.

I think that’s a good thing because it narrows the audience you must be paying attention to on social channels. If there are only 50 people you need to be listening to every day, it will be easier to see what they’re talking about and what their pain points are and who in their company is complaining about suppliers. You should be listening for opportunities to lend your expertise to the conversation. Not to sell, immediately, them but to provide answers to the questions they’ve voiced.

Tim Hughes is doing a great job with this at Oracle. Tim and some of the other social sellers out there are using social tools to listen, immerse themselves in conversations where there are complaints and discussions going on, and using those as lead generators.

However, you need to be careful not to try to make the sale the minute you make a connection. Instead, be conscious of building relationships first. The sales will come out of those relationships.

Lauren said that social media and building communities can be fantastic ways for B2B companies to generate insights and use them as touchpoints as they’re working through sales cycles. If you’re currently using email and calls to nurture a customer’s journey, better insights from social listening and conversation can help you enhance what you’re doing on these channels with more relevant content. She noted that there’s a lot that can be tracked on social, such as revenue tracked back from a single post on Twitter. Analytics reports can include qualitative as well as quantitative wins, but you don’t have to be able to track everything to show a correlation between your efforts.

Should companies try to compare ROI between channels?

None of us on the panel thought that comparing the ROI from each channel was productive. Each channel has different strengths, so your goals for each will differ and will be measured in different ways, but they’ll all contribute to your overall goals. Greg Weiss of MasterCard once said in a Snapchat that, “There is only one pie. If you make one piece bigger, than another has to be smaller.” There will always have to be decisions that must be made about where you’re going and what you’re going to do. Some of that is going to be personal feel, some of it will be judgement, and some of it might be looking to see where your competitors are in the space and making adjustments accordingly. There’s only so much room for everything, so if you give more to one area, you’ll have to take away from another.

Key takeaways

Each of us on the panel come from different backgrounds and had different perspectives, so it was exciting to come together and answer the questions Joel and the audience put forward. For the best insights, view the entire hangout. However, we all agreed that there’s a blurring of lines between social ROI from a marketing versus a customer care perspective. Companies should remember that although there are many different things that can (and should) be accomplished through social, it all boils down to forming relationships—so keep that in mind when measuring outcomes. And as Lauren mentioned, stop dithering around looking for the perfect framework! As long as you know what your business goals are and you know a few things you can do right now to move toward those goals, you can get started.

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