Measure THIS! An intro to social media ROI

Measure THIS! An intro to social media ROI

The following is a talk I gave about ROI for Social Media at the 2009 Social Tech Training in Toronto, ON. The audience was a group of 90 or so people from Canadian non-profits.

When I first started thinking about metrics for social media, I wanted to start out reminding our group about some fundamentals of the sphere. Oh, and with a flying lemur, because Sam Dorman had a flying lemur in his presentation earlier that day.


I’ve got a little exercise to get you warmed up. Are you ready? Take a minute and jot down all of the breakthroughs in communications history you can think of.

No, no, seriously. Write ’em down. Or type ’em out, if you’re like me. I’ll wait.

Did you think of smoke signals? That’s one of my favorites. Yep. Papyrus, printing press. Though, if we were playing Boggle, you’d have to scratch that one off, because everyone says that one. Radio, television. Morse code. The Internet.

Now tell me: In whose hands have those tools ended up over the last few millennia? Who has been in charge of, and in control of, telling our collective stories?

This is why history needs you. We need you to create and share your stories.

Social capital

Let’s talk for a minute about social capital. What is it? Just like monetary capital, social capital can be built up, spent, saved up, invested. It’s like a giant combination of influence and karma. The tricky part is, of course, measuring it.

According to Tara Hunt, author of a fabulous social media marketing book called The Whuffie Factor, there are a few things that comprise your, or your organization’s, social capital:

  • Connections: Who do you know? Not just important or famous people, either. Are you connected to lots of different kinds of people who can complete different tasks?
  • Reputation: What are you known for? What do people say about your expertise?
  • Influence: Can you move groups of people, small or large, to take some action?
  • Access to ideas, talent: Beyond your own skill set, do you have ways of reaching out to others with talent and knowledge?
  • Access to resources: You may not be able to fund a particular project, but do you know people who can? Do you have ways of generating physical support?
  • Potential access: Will your access to resources and talent stay static in the future, or will it continue to grow?
  • Saved up favors: Were not writing down every good deed, but do people remember you for the ways that you help others? This is incredibly important. Is your own generosity with your social capital part of your reputation?
  • Accomplishments: What awards have you won? What concrete recognition papers or articles published, etc have you received for your work?


There are a couple of things to keep in mind when it comes to dealing with your social capital. First of all, your organization, based on its mission and staff, has a unique voice in the world. Even if there are tons of people doing similar work to yours, you are still the only group with your unique perspective. This works to your advantage in social media, because your authentic voice is your most respected and valued voice. Forget brochure-speak — this is a world of conversations.

The other thing to remember is that a lot of social media culture is built on the “gift economy:” the notion that it’s a good idea to do things that are just good ideas. There’s no expected return when you do someone a favor, or when you take time to share research for free. You realize that it’s making the whole environment richer with your unique participation — you don’t expect anything else from it.

Which leads me to the next point: one-way streets go nowhere in this world. If you’re constantly posting self-referential items and nothing else, you’re not going to win a lot of support for the work you’re doing. This isn’t a broadcast medium; this is a place to engage with your community. (A good rule of thumb, for those getting started, is to post 30% of your own material, and 70% relevant-but-nothing-to-do-with-you material.)

What people are up to now

On Facebook:

  • According to Non Profit Social Network Survey, 80% of respondents have a staff person dedicating 25% of their time to social media
  • 40% have raised money, BUT: a good chunk have raised less than $500 in last year

Why? Don’t forget this incredibly important quote, ever:

It’s still all about building relationships, telling your story, and taking potential donors through the process of cultivation, stewardship and solicitation

Betsy Harman, on Beth’s Blog

So, how are people using Facebook?

  • Groups are good for personal communications, or smaller issue/action needs
  • Pages are good for larger organizations, brand identities

(More on this: )


  • Help spread the word
  • Measure success through awareness, not dollars
  • Majority of Facebookers are younger still
  • Build an identity

Credit: Beth Kanter and Allison Fine

What about Twitter?

Twitter’s pretty useful for a lot of aspects. You can get the word out, sure, but you can also:

  • Get buy-in or advice on new projects
  • Share others’ info relevant to your work
  • Find like-minded folk
  • Connect with media

It’s up to you to go looking for the conversations you want to have. You can easily set up searches for relevant names (of your staff people, spokespersons, etc.), titles of publications you’ve produced or articles that you’re mentioned in, and topics that are relevant to your work. You can then save those searches as RSS feeds, or in the application you use for Twitter. Another tip: put in URLs that you want to follow to, and keep an eye out for who’s tweeting.

But! That’s not all! Then you’ll take time to respond to those people: you’ll thank them for talking about you, or you’ll direct them to a relevant article (that most likely doesn’t reference you directly), or whatever the case is. It’s gardening, in a way: you’re cultivating community by spending time with the people in it.

Here’s a great interview that I did with Elana Wolowitz from Wellstone Action on their use of Twitter.

So how do I measure this?

Good question! Just kidding.

My friend Beka referred me to this fabulous 28-page Social Media ROI report from Peashoot (scroll down, it’s on the left — you have to give them your email address to get it). All the info covered in the report applies to commercial, for-profit enterprises, but there’s a lot to be applied to the non-profit world as well.

One of the biggest takeaways from the report is that it’s important in social media to not just consider traditional ways of measuring success. This is not about dollars raised, for example, as a direct measurement of the time you invest in having these conversations. There are other, more interesting ways — more qualitative than quantitative ways — to keep track of how you’re doing.

Here are some examples:

  • Satisfaction. Look at not just the number of people talking about your work, but start documenting what they’re saying. Is it positive? Neutral? Negative?
  • Authority. Are they coming to your organization as a resource, looking to you for expertise?
  • Loyalty and trust. How about repeat performance — is this their first time dealing with you? How often are they dealing with you?

When working with these measurements, goal-setting becomes crucial. It’s important to keep your goals very tight, direct and focused, especially when you’re getting going. Choose timeframes that are small — having x positive conversations about your work per week. Also, keep your metrics, to start, within just a couple of services. Say that you’re going to work on your Twitter presence for the next two months and then stick with it, rather than trying to spread yourself too thin across multiple services.

What about blogger outreach?

Charlene Li has a great graphic on measuring blogging impact from her 2007 report, and I can’t say it any better than the Q&A that concludes this blog post that announced the report:

Q: Is there a standard ROI for blogs? A: Nope — sorry, it isn't that easy! Just as there isn't a standard ROI for a Web site, there's no standard for a blog. It depends on what the goal of the blog is and also how much investment the company (and the blogger) puts into it.

Q: What's the best way to measure the effectiveness of a blog? A: Again, it starts with the goal of the blog. I strongly suggest that companies start with the goal, develop metrics that measure the attainment of that goal, and find ways to assign value to those metrics.

Q: But aren’t blogs risky? How do you take that into account? A: We definitely take risk into account by generating scenarios that show the impact of low-likelihood but high impact events — such as a lawsuit.

Q: Our CMO/CEO/CFO won’t let us have a blog until we can show him/her the definitive ROI of a blog. Help!! A: It’s not an unreasonable request — they don’t really understand the value of a blog and see just the potential cost and risk. By going through the exercise of defining and quantifying the benefits, costs, and risks of a blog, you’ll be educating your C-level executives while also demonstrating the discipline that they expect.

Q: But this is heresy – you can’t put the benefits of a blog on a spreadsheet! You’ve just got to believe that blogs are a good thing because they develop conversations with customers. A: At the core of my bleeding heart pumps the soul of a pragmatist. Sure, I buy into all of the positive, feel good reasons to have a blog. But when your manager asks why the company has a blog versus spending more time and resources on XYZ initiatives, it sure would be helpful to be able to show a spreadsheet of those blogging benefits in dollars and cents.

To explain. No, there is too much. Too sum up.

A few final thoughts to take away with you as you venture out into the wild world of social media ROI:

  • ROI isn't always about dollars. It’s about social capital, and the goodwill and influence you’re able to work with.
  • The more specific you can get, the better. Make your goals and corresponding metrics direct and clear.
  • Audience, audience, audience. Remember, this isn’t a broadcast medium, this is a conversational medium. Find people that want to have the conversation with you.
  • Ditch things that don't work. The low cost of these tools allows you to easily abandon tactics that don’t work. Don’t think that this means you’ve failed– it just means that it’s time to try the next thing.