Social Media Marketing is to online marketing today what Link Building was to SEO 2 to 3 years ago -- it's probably the #1 online marketing strategy you're most concerned about using most effectively. And yet, the great challenge for Social Media is to demonstrate its weight in gold in terms of ROI (Return On Investment). The reality is Social Marketing is incredibly difficult to measure. Still, I'd like to offer some potential ideas here for how you can measure the return on social programs. First, let's take a step back and look at this issue of "ROI" and figure out why we're looking for it in the first place.
Direct Response, Meet The Internet
If you've spent enough time in the web marketing world, you've encountered "Direct Response Marketing" (whether you're aware of it or not). Direct Response has played a major role over the past 10+ years in shaping the very foundation of what we now know as "Online Marketing." Long before the traditional agencies showed up to sort of institutionalize website marketing, this industry was created by what I'd call Guerrilla Marketers -- marketers who saw the web as a viable marketing tool long before any lectures were given on the topic in universities.
Direct Response Marketing is primarily concerned with strategies that get a response from every marketing message or from every marketing effort.
Direct Response has always been (and continues to be) immensely effective. It's especially powerful because small and medium-sized businesses can use Direct Response methods without a massive marketing budget.
Since Direct Response is so concerned with RESPONSE -- with getting people to take action and with being able to measure that action -- it's naturally concerned with what we're discussing in this post: Return On Investment.
End Of The Gold Rush, Beginning Of The Social Rush
I talk a lot about what I call "The Internet Marketing Gold Rush" because it helps put perspective on how web marketing has evolved over the years. Things move very quickly in this industry, and it's critical that we take time to look back to see how trends are evolving and shaping the online marketing world.
In my web marketing history, we have 3 essential eras:
The Pre Gold Rush Era
The Gold Rush Era
The Post Gold Rush Era (now)
The Gold Rush was characterized by a period of dramatic growth in Web Marketing, but growth still mostly influenced by the industry itself. We might say things were fairly "unregulated." This is where Link Building and gray or black hat strategies had their heyday.
Without getting bogged down too much in looking at the past and where we are now, it's enough to recognize that this Gold Rush ended with Google's Panda and Penguin updates, which effectively built regulation into the marketplace and made certain "borderline" strategies ineffective and risky.
Pick, Shovel, Axe, & Social Media?
When we discuss new social marketing strategies with our clients, questions like "What will be the return on my investment?" are at the top of their list. When you look at this history, it makes perfect sense. ROI is a hugely important factor in any marketing campaign, and they're right to look for it.
But sometimes ROI can deceive.
Today, there are more consumers online than ever. And that number grows every day.
Today, there are also more businesses online than ever. And *that* number grows every day.
As competition for your customer's attention grows, it's no longer sufficient to simply rank for a top keyword phrase on Google and then watch the traffic (and the sales) roll in. Link Building, SEO, Article Marketing -- these more traditional strategies are all about ROI.
How many links did we build?
How many hours did we spend on optimization?
How many articles did we submit?
Ok, great. Now what was the result?
How much did our keyword rankings grow?
How much did our natural SEO traffic increase?
And finally, how many sales did we make?
All of this is really simple to calculate. If you have a conversion rate of 5% and you increase traffic from 100 visitors per day to 1000 visitors per day, you've increased sales from 5 per day to 50 per day.
Just like Gold Rush mathematics, this is satisfying stuff.
How much did we spend to travel to California gold mines?
How many picks did we buy?
How many shovels?
How many axes?
And finally, how much gold did we find?
You Can't Pan For Gold On Twitter
Social Media Marketing isn't a pick, an axe, or a shovel. And when you try to use it that way, it hurts you far more than it helps you. (Think: online marketers who simply BLAST out their sales pitch every day on Twitter, or post nothing but "Special Offer" images on Facebook. Fail.)
You simply cannot pan for gold with a status update.
Social Media plays a much more subtle role in web marketing. It's actually a sign that web marketing has evolved and "grown up" as an industry. We're no longer simply banging out simple websites with squeeze pages and long-form sales letters. We're no longer looking at web marketing as a simple X + Y + Z = profits kind of equation.
We're now forced to think more right-brain and begin to focus more on things like creativity, community, and even (gasp!) branding.
Where Did You Come From? Where Did You Go?
It's best to think of Social Media as a supplement to your existing online strategy than to think of it as just another tool in your belt. Remember: with social marketing you're trying to build community, you're trying to build reputation, and you're trying to get more mileage out of all your other tools.
I'm definitely NOT suggesting that you should dismiss Direct Response at all. Quite the contrary. I'm simply suggesting that bringing the same perspective to the table when you think about the VALUE of your Social Media Marketing efforts is a huge mistake.
When social media is effective, it boosts your results in all other categories -- PPC, SEO, Article Marketing, Copywriting, etc etc.
It's the glue that builds a bridge between all of your campaigns and creates stronger relationships with your marketplace across the board.
Effective Lead Source tracking is probably the very best way to directly measure social ROI, but even this approach can be limited. Imagine, for example, a customer who joins your Facebook Fan Page, signs up for your email newsletter, follows you on Twitter, clicks your PPC ad, and ultimately makes a purchase on your website.
Who gets the ROI credit here? Facebook? Email Marketing? PPC? Copywriting?
It's hard to tell. And yet, it's critical to track these relationships between your campaigns in this very way.
Direct Response Marketing left us a powerful set of tools for our online marketing campaigns, but it's not the only lens we need for understanding and measuring the results of our web marketing work.