I've been accumulating a stack of somewhat related posts and articles over the past few months revolving around topics like the business value of social media, engagement, and measurement, metrics, or whatever term you prefer. There's way too much bubbling in my head to cover in one post, but I'm going to start with some of the recent fretting over "measurement" — since that's what connected me with Warren Buffett's advice this morning.
Let's start with these bits from his Op-Ed piece in today's NY Times:
A simple rule dictates my buying: ... [buy] when others are fearful.
... if you wait for the robins, spring will be over.
Yeah, yeah ... I know Warren wasn't talking about investing in social media. But his rationale applies, nonetheless.
We continue to hear business people from organizations large and small express fear about investing their time and/or money in blogging and other social media. "The lawyers won't let us, because somebody might leave a negative comment." "The C-level execs demand 'measurable' ROI." "What if I can't keep up with writing 2-3 posts a week?"
Recognize the fear?
What would Warren do?
The connections between the current economic crisis, the fearful approach to social media, and "measurement" was driven home yesterday in Dave Morgan's Online Spin post, Don't Bite Your Tail, Especially When Entering a Severe Recession, in which he reviews his talk "Time to Embrace Digital: Top 10 Reasons Not to 'Bite Your Tail.'" Nine good points, but one clunker:
#8 - Recessions require more measurability and more ROI. There is nothing like tough times to force tough decisions. As CFOs (and creditors) take more control of more business decisions, un-measurable media will lose and measurable media will gain. It is that simple.
That approach to ROI is simple-minded, driven by a variety of fears — fear of the unknown, fear of having to explain a new approach, fear of what peers might think.
But understanding what businesses gain from a presence in social media is NOT simple. The problem is that many of the most valuable kinds of "return" on the social media investment are not measureable, at least not by any tools we have today.
Some interesting work is being done in an effort to capture more of the complexity around what happens to marketing messages in a social media world. Eric Peterson has evolved a convoluted formula to measure "engagement" that in the end depends on counting clicks, page views, visits, and other behaviors that occur on the site:
But he acknowledges agreement "with other analysts and bloggers who insightfully say that there is no single calculation of engagement useful for all sites ..."
Kevin Mannion has an ongoing series of posts that began with the promising declaration, "Engagement is a story, not a metric." His most recent installment reminds that metrics can be an important part of the story, but adds that you might actually want to "ask your visitors ... about what they are doing on your site."
And Mannion also points to work at Forrester by Brian Haven that provides this useful visual image of how social media adds complexity to the old "marketing funnel" concept:
Yet all of these well-intentioned attempts at providing us with "measurement" tools suffer from at least two fundamental flaws:
1. Whatever they are counting, gets treated as "equal" — page views, minutes on site, click-throughs, subscribers. We have no technology that can tell us whether the person viewing a page is a casual web surfer, or a tech start-up billionaire looking for her next project. Or the difference between 20 minutes on site reading in depth and 20 minutes spent because of an interrupting phone call.
Boiled down, I call this the "all page views are not created equal" principle. At a recent CIO Online webinar, the panelist from PR Newswire noted a tech company that posts "geeky videos" aimed at a small number of tech viewers. "The number of views may be relatively small, but 'they know that these blogger are getting the right 100 or whatever number of views.'"
2. (And this is the BIG ONE that cannot be avoided) the most valuable things that you get from your blogging or social media investment generally don't happen on your blog or social media page. They may not happen online at all. It may be an email or phone call by of your readers or followers. The call may be to you, or the email may go to an influencer who recommends you to your soon-to-be biggest client. It may be a comment you leave on someone else's blog (where you're engaged only because you've invested in social media). One of your readers may mention a post you wrote, while having coffee with a colleague at a conference.
These kinds of offline, annecdotal, even serendipitous events don't get counted in those hard-nosed business-minded efforts to measure ROI. But especially in light of the relatively miniscule "i" piece of the ROi calculation in most blogging or social media projects, the "R" from even one such event can pay for the investment many time over.
In short, we spin our wheels trying to measure those things we have rulers for, and ignore the value of those that can't (yet) be reliably tracked and counted.
As mentioned (threatened?) above, I have lots more to say about several aspects of this area, but that will have to wait for future posts.
For now, let's go back to Dave Morgan's Top 10 list and think about the assertion that if a project, say, like starting a company blog, doesn't impress the CFO as having "measurable" ROI it won't get funded. That attitude won't change the reality of Dave's #1 (Ditigal is where the people are) or #2 (It's what your clients want) or #3 (Your clients are going there, with or without you).
Or how about this one from the Center for Media Research: ""56% of American consumers feel both a stronger connection with, and better served by, companies when they can interact with them in in a social media environment."
So, against those realities, if you can't see or we can't yet measure the ROi of social media, should you let fear keep you on the sideline? When others are fearful, it's time to ...