Is ROI Overrated? Don’t Underestimate Soft Benefits of Social Media

There can be good reasons for diving headlong into a social media strategy and arguments for hedging bets and proceeding carefully.  I would venture to say that the greater danger is to sit on the sidelines and be too deliberative.

I attended a session at the Conference Board's Corporate Communications and Web 2.0 event several weeks and was amazed to hear how the social media effort has grown organically at IBM (a company that many might assume is slow and bureaucratic), without lots of of fanfare or centralized planning.  Moderator and IBM social media manager Adam Christensen mentioned that the company's blogging policy was launched long after the company encouraged people to blog (there is now a veritable army of IBM bloggers).

People cite good reasons for delaying.  They want to avoid risks and see that there will be a business benefit, and some path to ROI for time and money spent.  This post that ran on the Comet Branding blog implores people to first have their proverbial ducks in a row.  Here's an excerpt:

Before you break your back doing the heavy lifting of researching and planning out your social media strategy, save yourself some heartache and hassle by first doing a posture check to gauge your organization’s social media readiness. Here are 8 questions to consider as you prepare to dive into the social mediasphere…

Far be it from me to say that things like metrics, ROI, and preparation are unimportant.  At the same time, I am reminded of my early days in tech, doing missionary selling work for some of the first CRM systems (called sales force automation then, back in the day of DOS and 24 pound luggable laptops).

Customers pushed for ROI, and we had some equations which seemed to do the trick as far as reassuring sales prospects that there was a road to payback.  More often than not, companies proceeded on faith – the common sense that maintaining an electronic customer database that is shared is just better than a stack of index cards or Rolodex.  You could also say the same thing for desktop productivity tools.  Is there ROI in word processing or spreadsheet software?

So, for all the well-intentioned and reasonable efforts to measure social media, control it and tie it back to business results, consider some simple facts:

  • People are buzzing about your brand right now, online as we speak.  Don't you want to be part of the conversation?
  • If you are not monitoring your brand and engaging in online dialog, can you afford to wait much longer?
  • Do you really need a study to tell you that the ways people get the information they need for purchasing decisions is much different today than it was even just a few years ago?

As I have said, and as the IBM example validates, social media can blossom without lots of central control or planning and to a large extent success means letting go.  There are typically many people who will gladly help in your extended community – your loyal customers, employees and their networks – if you give them what they need, encourage them and then just get out of the way.

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