Brian Solis: Social media ROI is measurable – if ROI is 'return on ignorance'

31st Mar 2011

Dan Martin caught up with Brian Solis after his session at the Dell B2B Social Media Huddle to talk to the new media guru about how to ensure that your social media project has direction and value.  

There’s a lot of stinking thinking going on in social media, according to Brian Solis. There are those that think it is free or cheap. There are those that think it is easy. And then there are those that think social media offers no value at all – that it is ineffective at reaching customers or influencing their decisions or behaviours.
All of these represent "dangerous misconceptions", and as one of the most prominent thought leaders in new media, with a book - Engage - widely regarded as the go-to guide for brands to build and measure Web 2.0 success, Solis unsurprisingly has something to say to these people. But it’s an uphill struggle to eliminate these misconceptions, he admits, because he "can’t say that the industry at large is working to change them".
A case in point is a recent Gartner report estimating that around 70% of social media projects will fail this year. Untrue, says Solis – because how can a project fail if it isn’t designed to impact the bottom line, isn’t tied to any meaningful business outcome, and has never defined what ‘success’ (and thereby 'failure') would represent! This is indicative of the confusion surrounding social media circa 2011.
"I think ROI is very measurable today – if the ROI stands for return on ignorance!" explains Solis. "The reality is that social media as it’s practiced is not designed to deliver a return. We know that there’s an investment – there’s your time, there’s your energy, there’s your opportunity cost because you’re doing this instead of something else. But what’s the ‘r’ – what’s the return that we’re trying to measure? Because it’s certainly not in friends, fans, followers or views." 
So in what terms should businesses be viewing social media if not friends, fans, etc? Solis suggests it “isn’t necessarily about just Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or Foursquare” either.
"Really what we are looking at is learning from what customers are saying, or what they are looking for, or the challenges they are having, and engaging directly, learning from that to build better programmes, better products, better services..." he explains, "where social media becomes an extension of what I call an ‘adaptive business’, a business that is changing over time and learning to become more relevant to customers, but also works on building a better organisation in general and where social media just becomes a part of it."
Filling in the blanks
This can start with simple practical steps to ensure that your business doesn’t fall into the trap of simply throwing money at social media because it either has a gut feeling that it is the right thing to do, or is worried that inactivity will mean falling behind the competition. The first step suggested by Solis is research – "understand who you are trying to reach" – with the second step  requiring that you answer the question of why – "why are we trying to reach these individuals and what is the value that we bring to them."
By using any of the number of research and social media monitoring tools on the market today(such as Radian6 and, organisations can fill in the blanks to these questions, and the others that Solis has identified as the keys to enabling businesses to progress with confidence and direction in social media.
  • Who: Define the brand personality and what it symbolises.
  • What: Listen to online conversations and learn from what’s said.
  • When: Pinpoint when your opportunities arise.
  • Where: Track down where your presence is required.
  • How: Become a part of the community.
  • Why: Find the reasons that warrant your participation.
  • To What Extent: Identify the individuals who can help you tell your story.
Solis offers up two further pieces of advice: "The third thing is to recognise that social media is just a series of tools and services and networks and pipes to reach a different type of customer, a customer based on what they are looking for and what they need. And the last thing is to figure out how do you introduce value through those channels to them in order to build a community."
Once this research and preparation is complete, then your organisation will not only have a clear direction for your social media project, but you will also have clarity regarding your desired business outcomes – moving the measurement of ROI within your grasp. But it is unlikely to rest with a lone business outcome.
"If you can design certain aspects to capture an outcome, an action or what have you, which is very easy to do (easy in terms of including it in the initiative) then you have something to measure against. Now we also have to look back and say ‘are we looking to add branding’ or looking at changing behaviour or are looking at selling or looking at reducing customer call tickets? These are questions we have to answer. It’s probably all of the above. And this is why no one social media campaign rules.
"You have to engage all of the consumers how they need to be engaged and that is why we talk about the ‘socialisation’ of business, because it takes a different strategy to reduce customer call tickets, it takes a different strategy to change customer perception or behaviour or sentiment. A more sophisticated organisation will be running most of these programmes simultaneously because they’re trying to make efforts on all of these fronts, each having metrics, milestones, KPIs and ultimately ROI to justify their value and justify the investment. And if [it doesn’t justify it], changes can be made in order to improve that, what we call improved versions or improved metrics, or we ultimately realise that there is no ROI, maybe we should try something else."
Appreciative of the social investment
In view of the confusion clouding social media and the preparation required before undertaking such an endeavour, the urge to outsource social media initiatives is perhaps understandable. However, this is not necessarily the right decision according to Solis.
"I suppose the voice of the company should be somebody who deserves to be the voice. That’s not to say that an outsider couldn’t be passionate about the company and the market. I think the criteria is if you’re going to engage directly with somebody then it has to have the basics – transparency, authenticity – but really what we need is passion, enthusiasm, leadership, solutions, someone who can help add value in the market.
"If you can get that externally, or if you can get that internally, those are the criteria that need to be met. Now execution, in terms of design, in terms of day-to-day development of app, or content, that is moot – that can be handled inside or outside. But really you need somebody who is going to be a champion and a lot of times that champion is within the organisation, because anything else is just a representative in a new channel - and that is not going to sway me to connect with you on a social network."
Nonetheless, for those businesses that are making a success of social media, and have done their research, have established what value they are delivering and are clear about their desired business outcomes, the rewards can be significant. Solis speaks highly of sports retailer Giantnerd, collaboration app firm 37 Signals and American Express – three businesses that have managed to avoid the social media misconceptions that are so rife.
"I think American Express is doing it very well because their investing in it. For example, the American Express OPEN Forum is attracting a lot of small and medium size business owners, and they are doing that by providing value. In fact, they have created the OPEN Forum where they get the best minds and the best voices in small business, in new media, in mobile, in technology, to share their insights and they aggregate it all in a place that provides value to the American Express customers. Or even just any small business owner can get value on there. That is the investment that American Express makes in this. Of course, they get brand association, of course they are regarded as a hero for doing this, so they probably get new customers carrying their cards, or accepting their cards.
"[37 Signals] are investing in their community through value – productivity, collaboration, how do we become more productive, how do we become more efficient, where are the best tools, what are the best processes and methodologies and philosophies? They’ve created some of the best content there and their customers have become customers because they are appreciative of the investment that they have made in helping them make other decisions."

Dan Martin is the editor of's sister site

Replies (3)

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By awaldstein
31st Mar 2011 14:33

Good post, thanks for writing this.

Connecting with their customers is what companies do. Not a new idea but somehow, the power of the social tools and the breadth of the social nets makes the tools seem more than they are and the common sense principals that have guided smart companies to somehow have gotten lost.

Not belittling the discussion...far from it. It's essential and remarkably, I think just getting started.

I've been exploring these same topics for my clients lately in a series of posts that may be of interest:

 -"The best marketing strategy is dynamic execution" @

 -"Marketing…this is a wake up call" @


 -"Customers rule"@

Looking forward to your input. It's an important topic.

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By uteross
01st Apr 2011 09:34

I totally agree with Brian - it's a shame so many companies are thinkings all these stinky things about social media instead of going ahead and take part of this revolution!

Social Media - the listening, the understanding, the engagement- it can be so easy with the right tool. An there are so many use cases showing the chances and opportunities to develope better relationships, products and services with social media.

Especially the integration of social media as a new communication channel into your existing interaction can boost your customer relations into new spheres. Social CRM links social media analyses to your operative processes and enables you to document this bi-directional communication in your CRM system and - most important - to use the findings to improve your business.

Put the power of social media to good use and improve your customer relationship management -  NOW is the best time to go ahead!

Thank you Brian for all your articles around - it's really a pleasure to read your trendsetting thoughts!

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By Brandfixion
01st Apr 2011 11:54

Good article with nice insights, but the two most obvious things I draw from this are:

1. - Companies are failing to find ROI with social media because they are not tying it to a strategy with measurable outcomes in the first place. If they could just decide why they want to use social media in the first place, then they could begin to benchmark its success or failure.  And it is not just limited to traditional marketing communications.

2. - Clearly social media is not 'owned' by one function of a business and this is where a lot of confusion around ROI comes from. For example it is easy to measure the ROI of a sales function because you can see the investment and the sales that are made directly through it, and the sales dept owns this. Similarly if you invest in a new product development technology you can measure the success in terms of time to market or reduced production costs, and the production dept owns this; etc etc for easily defined functions. So the ROI question for SM cannot be a single measure and cannot just be lumped into 'marketing' but rather needs to be utilised (it is a tool after all) to achieve specific company objectives. Once that is cleared up, ROI should become more transparent.

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