Image via popofatticus via Flickr

As businesses put more time, resources, and emphasis on social media, they want to see measurable results. But what if the return on investment (ROI) of social isn’t immediately obvious? It’s not always easy to measure the value of lasting connections and meaningful relationships.

I’ve spent the last two years speaking to our customers about their successes on social media. In reflection, I’ve realized that some of our most successful customers on social aren’t businesses, but are organizations with less conventional KPIs. For example, how can police or fire departments track the conversion rate of a Tweet if they are not seeking profit? What about a tourism organization that needs to increase referrals but can’t track the actual sale at the end of the line? Or a nonprofit with the goal to increase awareness?

These organizations rely on social to achieve results that are difficult to measure. But if none of them are tracking the ROI of social, then how should they measure success?

A New Approach to Social Marketing: Return on Relationship or ROR

A Nielsen Global Trust Survey from 2012 showed that 92% of global consumers say they trust what they hear from people they know over what they see in an ad—an 18% increase since 2007. Studies also show that fans or followers of a brand or business on social media are significantly more likely to buy products and services or recommend to a friend.

In March 2009, Ted Rubin, Social Marketing Strategist, Author and acting CMO of Brand Innovators, started using and evangelizing the term Return on Relationship. He argues that instead of asking, “what’s the ROI of social?”, we should be asking, “what’s the ROI of trust?” or of loyalty or influence.

Return on Relationship, ROR, #RonR, is the value accrued by a person or business from nurturing a relationship. It’s measured through organic engagement, community management, and sentiment monitoring. It all comes down to one word: Value. How do your social media efforts create value for you, as a brand, and for your audience? What prompts people to come back to your social channel(s) and to any other place you are looking to drive them to?

Social marketing is less about driving traffic and more about attracting people. “Social marketing has evolved from seeing who could gather the most Likes to seeing who has the most ‘on target’ fan base—a simple quality over quantity shift,” says Rubin. Measuring ROR is not easy; it involves not only analyzing connection growth, but also understanding the impact your customers’ voices have on your brand and reputation. This includes sentiment analysis, as well as engagement metrics for your content, like organic sharing rates.

So whether an organization has products and services for sale or not, building relationships on social media promotes trust, loyalty, and influence. This leads to improved business reputation and influence, increased sharing and awareness, and—when applicable—increased revenue. Simply put, people prefer to do business with those they like and trust—the definition of the word relationship.

3 Things You’ll Earn by Investing in your Relationships

  • Trust

For the police department that protects the quiet city of Azusa, California, social media offers an opportunity to connect on a personal level with citizens in order to build trust. Without trust, where would the citizens have turned when the massive Colby Fire broke out on January 16, 2014, and quickly spread to Azusa’s homes?

For the Azusa Police Department, social media is integral to the team’s communication during emergency response. Using social media, they can quickly disseminate official information, reduce 911 calls by answering non-emergency concerns online, and strengthen the police department’s relationship with the community. The Azusa Police Department doesn’t measure success in dollars, but in the level of public safety and service delivered. Within 60 hours the fire was maintained and citizens calm and safe. Over that time, the department’s social messages reached an average of 3,000 citizens per day and saw more than 10,000 website visitors for information.

“Citizens turned to us for trusted information and support, and we didn’t disappoint.”—Officer Mike Bires, Azusa Police Department.

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  • Loyalty

Tourism Jasper is the official tourism body that promotes travel to Jasper, Alberta, Canada. For this organization, and others like it, funding comes from shareholder referrals. But tracking conversion from Tourism Jasper’s original social message down to a shareholder’s hotel room booking, for example, is very advanced. This is where the ROR comes in play.

According to Kyle Harms, the organization’s Digital Marketing Specialist, a woman once tweeted them using the branded hashtag, #MyJasper, to ask if they could send her a picture of a local mountain she’d seen. Harms started up a conversation on Twitter and shared an image of the mountain. Soon after, the woman tweeted back a photo of her son’s nursery where she’d painted the mountain, to remind her of the place that is near to her heart and share it with her baby. Because Harms nurtured the relationship on social media with this woman, the organization now has a loyal customer and advocate for life who will bring her son to Jasper one day to see the mountain for real. Loyalty is the ultimate form of customer retention. And while it may be an untrackable long-game, the organization spent 15 minutes to open a conversation that resulted in a customer’s a sense of belonging, customer service, and loyalty for a lifetime.

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  • Influence

When businesses invest in relationships, share smart content, and showcase influential people in the industry, the connections and influence it gains pays off down the line. The team behind the USA Science and Engineering Festivaluses social media to promote the many facets of and influencers behind STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

Like a cyclical relationship, when the team showcases their expertise and knowledge of STEM on social, they attract leaders in the industry who want to advocate for the festival, which ends up driving more awareness and festival attendance. The festival has gained so much momentum and influence over the years that people such as President Obama and oceanographer Sylvia Earle support the cause by attending, promoting, or recommending youth to attend. For the festival, the ROR for becoming thought leaders and attracting influencers resulted in increasing event attendance by 63%—growing from 200,000 attendees in 2012 to 325,000 in 2014.

Courtesy USA Science and Engineering Festival/Facebook
Courtesy USA Science and Engineering Festival/Facebook

For those businesses and organizations that invest in social relationships, success comes in the form of increased trust, loyalty, and influence. And while some businesses can track and measure the ROI of social, there’s something to be learned from those organizations that aren’t seeking a profit from relationships.

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