Yesterday at the Social Media Business Forum in Durham (which, by the way, was organized and run very well by the folks at new Triangle-area startup Our Hashtag--kudos!) I heard it again: the social media ROI metrics question. Last time I heard this, the response was to single out Airport Display advertising as "not being measured either." This time, it was a panel of fairly notable social media enthusiasts (picking on any of them by name is irrelevant) who pointed out that ROI for "Urinal Advertising" isn't measured either, and that all of the reach and frequency-style metrics for traditional media aren't much better.
This viewpoint is fairly common in the social media space at the moment--the evolving discovery that in a world of media multitasking and passive measurement for passive media, we may be able to measure how many drivers saw a billboard, but where's the engagement? You can audit radio with passive measures, but who cares about the messages they hear?
I've also heard it said in the social media space that the only metric that really matters is what rings the till. That is the language, ultimately, that the C-level speaks, so all we need to do is link a social media initiative directly to increased sales, and the effort is justified. True enough, I suppose, but pursing some kind of direct linkage metric may prove to be a bit of a rathole.
The path to a sale is something like a romance. Regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the classic AIDA continuum or the Cognition-Affect-Behavior model, consumers generally digest multiple messages at multiple touchpoints in the process of formulating their own want, need or desire for a product. Hearing about a product a few times on the radio might spark the initial "What?", in-store marketing/trial might provide some kind of factual proof, online reviews social proof and so on. However you examine the process, most people become dimly aware of products, then dimly aware of how a product might fit into their lives (emotionally or logically) and then move into deeper levels of engagement with a product or service before they decide to buy. Social media undoubtedly belongs in that picture. In fact, social media might just be the most powerful variable in terms of changing a consumer's willingness to consider a brand (there's a metric!) or perception of brand fit (there's another!). But if social media moves a potential buyer from apathy to engagement with a brand, but a Val-Pak coupon is the last step in the "sale," social media will continue to sit at the kid's table as far as "ringing the till" is concerned.
Social media initiatives cannot be allowed to devolve into direct sales efforts. The early adopters are right to point out that traditional media's "audit" style metrics are falling off a cliff. But there are concerted efforts underway now to develop models for engagement and new metrics for all manner of non-traditional forms of marketing and advertising. Smart marketers use any and all tools at their disposal to engage consumers at multiple points along the consideration continuum. Do urinal ads lead to direct sales? I don't know where you pee, but probably not. Are they measured? You betcha. A display in the mens' room for a product changes perception of that brand, gives it personality and potentially increases the perception of brand fit for a given audience. With that change comes receptivity to other messages, in other media, until finally the sale is made. (N.B., we actually have measured advertising effectiveness for urinal ads, airport displays, interactive kiosks at malls and even truck stops--trust me, it's going to be a long time before a social media enthusiast can spit out a form of non-traditional advertising as an example of an "unmeasured" media that isn't actually being measured.)
Social media's role in cross-marketing effectiveness measures has to be defined, measured and vigorously championed by social media consultants. We don't yet have the metrics, perhaps (though I would suggest Brand Fit, Willingness to Consider and Net Promoter as promising candidates) but without rigorous, methodologically sound measures (not just audits!) of how social media affects consumer perception, social media will continue to be stuck in its silo instead of becoming a transformational force within the enterprise.
Finally, consider this. Twice in the past two weeks, I have heard the "social media ROI" question answered the same way: "well, medium 'x' isn't measured very well either." The answer is never to say "the other guys are just as bad." The correct answer is always to innovate.