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ROI is often a dirty word when used in the context of social CRM. But, as Laurence Buchanan explains, whether it is measurable or valid may not be the key question.
For some reason ROI is often a dirty word when used in the context of a social CRM initiative. Metrics are abundant but dollars are often harder to find. It’s easy to point to a metric like number of followers, page impressions, percentage of positive sentiment, etc. but ultimately all of these are just leading indicators. Every boardroom I have been in to have asked the tough questions:
- How much is this going to cost me?
- What cash flows will I get in return?
- How will this enable me to achieve my strategic objectives?
- What are the risks?
- How does the proposed course of action compare against other (viable) alternatives that I have?
I couldn’t imagine facing off to a hard-nosed exec without having answers to these questions and responses like "we need to join the conversation" simply don’t cut the mustard. Kathy Herrmann nails this point in her webinar on "How to determine Social Media and SCRM value and ROI":
"There are folks who seem to view social media initiatives as a special class of corporate initiative that’s exempt from Business 101 fundamentals. That astounds me, especially when you consider how the costs for social media can climb... It is unrealistic not to expect execs to demand an ROI on any major corporate initiative. Companies run on money, not on tweets or the number of friends they have."
Twitter may be a free tool, but social CRM has real costs: people, process, technology and management. It can also create tangible benefits; increasing revenues (e.g. through word of mouth marketing, up-selling or cross-selling), or reducing operational costs (e.g. through call deflection via an online community, or reduced cost of lead acquisition).
Logitech for example deflects around 120,000 cases, per month, from its online community. Dell famously sells around $3m per annum via Twitter (tiny in the context of its overall revenues, but nevertheless growing). As such, why shouldn’t the Board be entitled to understand the likely cash flows from their investment? Natalie L. Petouhoff, Ph.D. from Forrester has done a terrific job of detailing some of these costs and revenue as they relate to online communities in "The ROI of Online Customer Service Communities". The social CRM vendor, Lithium, has gone a step further and has built some of this thinking into its product.
The real question in my mind is not whether ROI is measurable or valid (it is), it’s whether ROI is the only metric worth evaluating? I would suggest that ROI as an isolated metric is not enough. In fact, nothing like enough. All companies aim to create shareholder value (or 'Stakeholder' in a public company); but each will have different methods of achieving that goal. For example, a low-cost retailer might focus all its energies on growing revenue and market share during a time of economic recession. The retailer will actively hire and spend marketing budget to achieve those aims. Other companies may focus on earnings during the same climate of economic distress; consciously sacrificing risky revenue growth opportunities to concentrate on cost-saving. A decision to invest in social CRM needs to be based on ROI but also on alignment to strategic objectives. This is a point Wim Rampen makes clearly:
"If the goal of your strategy is to double your market-share in 10 years... I would think that any investment you are doing should be aimed at meeting that strategic goal, hence any business cases should not only be measured against financial ROI, but against strategic-outcomes too."
Don Peppers and Martha Rogers take strategic thinking about customer investments one step further with their comprehensive work on Return on Customer (ROC):
"Most business executives would agree, intellectually, that customers represent the surest route to business growth – getting more customers, keeping them longer, and making them more profitable. Most understand that the customer base itself is a revenue-producing asset for their company – and that the value it throws off ultimately drives the company’s economic worth. Nevertheless, when companies measure their financial results, they rarely if ever take into account any changes in the value of this underlying asset, with the result that they are blind – and financial analysts are blind – to one of the most significant factors driving business success."
This way of thinking balances short and long-term objectives in a meaningful way and offers something complimentary to ROI:
"Return on investment quantifies how well a firm creates value from a given investment. But what quantifies how well a company creates value from its customers? For this you need the metric of Return on Customer (ROC). The ROC equation has the same form as an ROI equation. RO equals a firm’s current-period cash flow from its customers plus any changes in the underlying customer equity, divided by the total customer equity at the beginning of the period."
What I like most about ROC is that it treats customers as an asset (the sum of all customer lifetime value) and it takes into account changes to the capital value of that asset, instead of simply looking at the dividends produced by the asset in the current quarter, i.e. current quarterly revenues. The capital value of the customer asset is not just their transactional worth it is also their 'social' worth. As my Capgemini colleague Mark Walton-Hayfield points out:
"Having reward mechanisms that are based on more than just what the customer spends with the company will become more important. Reward mechanisms need to develop to be based on the value that customers bring to the organisation through co-creation and customer advocacy as well as their attitude to the company brand. This could be based on the contributions they make to an online community or knowledge base, for example, and the additional customers the business may obtain through existing customers’ recommendations or positive comments made by an existing customer."
On that basis therefore, whilst I would suggest that looking at the ROI of a social CRM initiative is mandatory, I do not believe it should be looked at in isolation. A decision to invest in social CRM needs to be aligned to an organisation’s corporate objectives and needs to consider both short and long-term value drivers.