Few brands have a marketing plan that lacks the words "social media," but most are struggling with how to measure and communicate the impact of programs on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other sites.
What's the value of a tweet by someone with 100,000 followers? Does your brand's 45,000 Facebook friends translate into anything meaningful? How many of the people watching a promotional YouTube video will actually purchase the product?
Many corporations are not fully capitalizing on social media simply because "digital evangelists" have not yet captured or communicated its value proposition in a way that senior leadership understands. There are ways, however, to ensure that social media programs support strategy, establish meaningful goals, and communicate success to those who care about social media -- and even those who fear and loathe it.
In my previous role as marketing director of Propecia (a medicine that treats hair loss), I didn't care much about how many balding men engaged with my brand online. All that mattered was that my "paid" or "earned" online messaging reached men motivated to treat hair loss, and that a meaningful percent of them started treating with Propecia as a result of our digital marketing.
In some cases, our "cost-per-qualified-patient start" via social media was lower than that of paid search. In other cases, I saw well-targeted advertising campaigns driving little measurable behavior, including even website visits. Advertising impressions don't count unless they actually make an impression.
Social media is older than the internet, but -- with the current hype around its role in the marketing mix -- it often remains an important tactic in search of a strategic objective.
Perhaps any company's most important prerequisite to measuring social-media marketing is to determine its goal: enhance public relations, or advertise and sell products. Social media tends to fit more nicely in a public relations function, but it can sometimes be tracked to revenue more easily than offline mediums (like print or television). At a minimum, a well-crafted social media pilot can drive such "sales proxies" as awareness, image, or purchase intent.
Unlocking the full value of social media requires a near impossible task for a large corporation: organizational alignment between public relations, legal, brand teams, advertising, and those agencies that serve and help measure campaigns. But it's perhaps more risky to await the "corporate kumbaya" before experimenting thoughtfully and with accountability.
The audience of a recent new media conference seemed to agree universally that CPM (cost per 1,000 ad impressions) is a decent way to buy online media. But that same measurement translates incredibly poorly to social media. Comparing an ad impression with a positive peer-to-peer endorsement of a company is, unfortunately, like comparing the impact of a blue envelope packed with discounts and offers to a handwritten letter from a friend. True, they both arrive via the mailbox, but that's about where their commonalities end.
Duration of engagement -- prominent panelists argued -- was a better way to measure social media. Inarguably, a person watching a three-minute video is more likely to take action than someone glancing at a banner for a fraction of a second (or not noticing it at all). Still, a stopwatch misses such valuable dimensions as relevancy, persuasive impact, and targeting.
How many celebrated 2007-2009 viral video commercials actually reached a brand's target audience and compelled them to behave differently?
Here are some tips that can help you "reality check" your social media pilots, or at least build a "strawman" business case. I've found it helps executives overcome risk aversion when they see social media as contributing something they care about -- ROI.
1) To measure "top of funnel"; be sure "bottom of funnel" is tight. If you're Coke or Pepsi, it's easy to shift some lower-impact advertising dollars to experiment with social media. You may not likely link Facebook activity to sales, but you know intuitively that your brand is more meaningful to customers and thus less forgettable. If you're in a company that can measure online purchases, then you probably already have robust tracking on your website. Social media, like any media, can be calculated at a "cost of a qualified website visitor," but a word of caution: You may get curiosity clicks from consumers who were never likely to purchase, and only a small percent of people will stop their social media activity to purchase immediately.
2) Stick with the highway, not the rest stops. It's tempting for agencies and public relations firms to build microsites where they can measure behavior. However, those often financially bloat a campaign and prohibit ROI. You don't need a Bud Light entertainment network to sell beer. The programs that have the best ROI are those that have a small "I," avoiding the need for $200K destination sites, expensive video production, and millions in ad spending. The cost of creating an identity on social media sites is low, and the cost of engaging brand evangelists can be lower. "Fish where the fish are," since it's hard to move someone from their favorite social media site. Even the best YouTube videos have 2-5 percent of people visiting a brand site after watching a video, so spending $250,000 on a viral commercial is antiquated.
3) Let your decision maker set key assumptions. Unless you're the budget holder, you likely need to convince someone else to fund a social media pilot. I like identifying the primary assumption drivers of a campaign and basing an ROI model on whatever known facts exist (industry norms, conversion rates, lifetime value of customer, etc.). Sometimes the required cost-per-new-customer is too small to justify a social media pilot, but often (especially for travel, pharmaceuticals, financial services, or electronics) the revenue-per-transaction can substantiate a $10-$100 acquisition cost. Then low click-through rates matter less.
I build a pro forma based on key assumptions that someone else makes. In one recent example, I calculated that a client would reach break-even if just .0035 percent of the audience who watched an entertaining video promotion for its electronic device actually bought one. So I asked the client to estimate the likely conversion rate. He guessed 2 percent, and I explained that it would be unlikely based on my experience. But the client would not have likely guessed .0035 percent, and now we had somewhere to start.
4) Find analogs. Every professional discipline has a way it is accustomed to framing ROI. For television buyers, reach and awareness levels (gross rating points) are measured against media expense, and they usually don't count agency fees or production costs. A digital media buyer typically pursues cost-per-impression or cost-per-click. A public relations executive might compare agency billings to "estimated advertising value" of a story's pickup. Direct response professionals like conversion rates, such as lead-generation costs, or incremental revenue based on re-contact.
Social media is only meaningful if the decision maker sees impact in their terms. Television still represents an estimated 97 percent of our video viewing, so I wouldn't dare suggest to a traditional marketer that YouTube videos drive awareness like TV. But our target audiences are increasingly adept at ignoring ads -- they are influenced significantly by peers and spend exponentially more time online (via phone, web, or a connected device). So social media holds up well to the scrutiny of "cost-per-engagement" as long as we capture the value of that engagement in the terms we care about.
I worked on a recent Hitviews campaign to promote two Fox television shows via online video stars. The client was happy with the investment because they recognized that a video star's entertaining video is more influential to his or her audience than a single ad. Fox would have needed to spend exponentially more on advertising to approach the impact of the near five million online video views of branded entertainment (or call it host endorsement or digital storytelling) that made viewers excited about the new television shows.
5) Is "what's the ROI" the real concern? I remember when brands were reluctant to spend on "product.com" websites and fired ROI questions hoping the medium would go away. We are all fairly change-adverse, and often our reluctance has little to do with spending effectively. We want to avoid negative press, so let someone else prove the power of a new medium, and stick with what's proven to work and get us promoted. This is Darwinian behavior -- few of us want to be the first to see if a new fruit is edible or poisonous. Yet, we can't deny how our kids interact with friends via electronic media, and we instinctively want to be seen as an innovator, not a digital dinosaur.
If someone has an emotional concern about social media, the ROI alone is not likely to persuade them. Instead, it's safe to assume that an executive knows very little about social media and to keep a campaign's summary simple and safe. The corporation generally wants to ensure it approves all content or messaging it distributes, and it probably needs to expedite approval to keep up with the speed of information. Also, note that just as corporate websites didn't stop angry customers from creating their own anti-brand websites, social media monitoring and engagement won't control or even mute public opinion. As an example, my vlog about a lousy US Airways experience got me on NBC's "The Today Show," and it would have been difficult (but not impossible) for a social-media advocate to prevent that.
ROI concerns may be a red herring for legitimate skepticism about unproven marketing channels. But even senior leaders without much interest in new forms of electronic media can appreciate the basic value of listening to customers, keeping them well informed, and addressing their concerns proactively. Almost everything corporations can do in social media they could do decades ago, although not as quickly or with as much scale.
6) Tell a story
We're all hungry for numbers, but often anecdotes go farther than a pro forma. Here are some of my own experiences, which demonstrate the impact of social media:
- During a recent visit to Bermuda, I posted a video that showed our cabin at 9 Beaches Resort. Within hours, the hotel manager found it online via his U.S. digital agency, contacted me via my cell, and invited us to dinner.
- My brother ordered embroidered Lands' End sheets for himself and accidentally shipped them to me. His initials, as it turns out, are the same as my four year old. I jokingly posted a video of my son enjoying the "early birthday gift" from his Uncle. Lands' End was so tickled it shared the video via Twitter and sent us both free embroidered towels.
- Even before my videos were widely viewed, I once blogged that I was going on a diet, and a week later I received a surprise package of Kellogg's Special K products.
Do you know how many times I've told those stories?
Probably the most exciting and frightening reality we marketers face is that customers, including ourselves, are becoming more adept at ignoring ads and more resourceful at finding credible influencers to guide purchase decisions. More than ever, decent marketing can't make up for lousy product. But great marketing can create a halo around the company or product and create loyal customers whose amplified voice is worth more than our own.
What's the ROI of that? You decide.