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ROI on Social Media?

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

Reading Scott Stratten’s book on Unmarketing. His take on ROI for social media (about it giving him ulcers!) resonates with me. As it did with many folks on the ASAE executive management section listserv. The thread was titled “Why is everyone making this so damned complicated?” As Stratten pointed out in his book, why is the right question. ROI is the wrong answer.

As a former trade association exec, my team constantly struggled with determining the ROI or value of various member relations tactics. Newsletters, websites, direct mail, workshops, speakers bureaus, social media are all tactics that are tied to strategic goals. All tactics are part of the overall strategy for an association to be visible and approachable, friendly and trustworthy. Selecting the right metrics to measure ROI stems from business objectives and strategies — not from the tactics. Resources should be organized around the strategic metrics — not around tactics. The challenge is determining the goal and coming up with an operational definition of how achieving the goal will look. If the goal is a birthday cake, then the operational definition is the recipe. But first you need to decide: what flavor and texture of cake do you want?

Susan Etlinger conducted qualitative research with 60 social media marketers and vendors. The purpose of her research was to tie social media performance to business goals. She identified six business goal categories: brand health, innovation, customer experience, marketing optimization, operational efficiency, and revenue generation. For some associations, brand health may be the goal (i.e., understanding how people talk about the services, products, and other selections available).

The social experience is an important component of any association. Revenue is not a transaction. It is a relationship. Associations need to know how their online actions are affecting those relationships. One interesting finding of Etlinger’s is improved brand health and increased revenues had a direct correlation with social media and customer experience. If you want to know what people are saying about your organization, google analytics probably won’t provide the data you need.

One benefit of social media is fulfillment of a need for members to have an online community of like-minded professionals. Which, in turn, can attract other birds of a feather. When people cannot come together face to face, social media provides a substitute for the proverbial water cooler. Social media forums provide proximity for people of similar attitudes to come together virtually. Attitude similarity is one of the most consistent factors of attraction in social psychology research.

Social media is a tactic to engage members and fulfill a need for affiliation and dialogue with like-minded others. If this is the only “outcome” of this tactic, it has value. Measurable? Perhaps not in traditional terms. However, we all know it is more costly to get a new member than to keep an existing member. If members are retained because they feel connected and engaged, social media may be a contributor. But an added benefit is dynamic social media forums may also attract some new lurkers, fans, and eventual members.

Social media is part of the entire recipe relative to an association’s business goals for membership retention and recruitment, product and service sales, or public relations. Start with what you want to measure before you choose a measurement tool.

It gets complicated when you’re trying to measure how good a chocolate cake tastes when carrot cake was what you wanted.


Sherry S. Jennings, PhD
Founder and principal of Sound Governance. Sherry started Sound Governance because board leaders need a safe space.

Read more about sherry.
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