The Cost of Social Media

My switchboard has been lighting up with queries and debates about the metrics of social media marketing. It feels like the good old days when we’d grind over the same questions about Web sites, and multimedia presentations, and, oh god, Brand. Seem like we’re going in circles, anyone?

Let’s review a couple of things we’ve learned as marketers on the previous go-rounds.

1) If you’re in marketing, you are a cost. Everything you do is a cost. While you’re sitting there reading this post, you are costing the company money in salary, space, equipment and benefits. If you run a marketing department, whoah nelly, multiply everything by head count and then sweat. If you had a mind for numbers, like, say, the CFO, you could figure out how many products you’ve got to actually sell to pay for your time reading this post. So I’ll keep it short. The more time you spend navel gazing over the costs and options of social marketing, the more it’s costing you, both in cash and opportunity.

2) You’re going to fail anyway, so make it quick. Try something. Maybe you’ll get lucky. At least you’ll be on to round two with some knowledge under your belt while the other guy’s still trying to calculate ROI–and that practical knowledge is a far better value for the cost than a fancy spreadsheet.

3) You can’t measure ROI if there’s no path to actually generating revenue, or at least reducing an existing cost. So come up with a hypothesis–you know, the scientific method. How is some new blog, or forum, or customer advisory site, or other social media going to lead, at some misty point in the future, to a customer opening up their wallet? Or eliminating some costly procedure your CFO is already shelling out for? The shorter the path of stepping stones, the better. 

4) Efficiency is worthless if you’re not effective. If you’re looking at ROI in a vacuum–what did it cost me to win this revenue?–you’re staring down at the map too long while driving in heavy traffic. Metrics are most useful in marketing when you compare things. Compare customer communities to focus groups. Compare awareness campaigns with advertising. Or just compare one syndication channel with another. It’s like A/B testing in direct mail. Having comparisons helps you better identify where the costs and benefits are.

If you’ve got a good plan for a social media project–a quick entry, a known cost, a plausible path to value, and a plan for testing effectiveness–and the person holding the purse strings is still throwing up roadblocks and telling you to offer more evidence of ROI, you’re either at the wrong company or your boss is giggling after you leave. Maybe both. 


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