Social Media and the Cult of Marketing ROI

Mr. Kool-AidOver the past few years, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to write about marketing finance and metrics. Like many marketers of my generation, my understanding of marketing performance metrics was transformed by the 2000 recession. At the time I was president of a marketing agency in San Francisco, and as the economy plunged, I watched as clients mercilously slashed marketing teams and budgets. When the economy bottomed out, Marketing ROI became an obligatory mantra recited in every new business meeting. Marketers got swept up in the cult of ROI, accepting an unassailable truth that dictated their behavior, without question or true belief. Few marketers had the training to put ROI in a real financial context–our business schools don’t like to worry creative minds with accounting requirements–so Marketing ROI was interpreted in myriad ways, which often meant little more than a vague definition of “success”.

With a vacuum of financial acumen among marketers and a rising imperative for accountability, CFOs gained ever greater dominion over marketing programs by holding tighter purse strings. Marketing gurus responded with all kinds of new marketing formulas featuring pseudo-financial concepts–Return on [Your Concept Here]–instead of promoting basic financial fundamentals so marketers could connect with the CFO on common ground. This only distanced marketers further from the boardroom, as I wrote a couple of years ago:

Marketing loses all credibility with the board room suite when it twists and bends financial metrics designed to measure value creation into concepts that skirt the issue of accountability for actually creating value.

Even before the new financial crisis hit, I could see the ROI shackles hobbling marketing organization’s and their ability to innovate. It wasn’t the concept of measuring peformance that was the problem, but the inability of marketers to effectively argue a compelling business case that challenged whatever rigid ROI framework they felt imposed on them by the CFO. As social media surged, I sat in many dozens of new business meetings where marketing executives stalled out in their enthusiasm for innovation when it came to justifying any new program without a proven ROI. The irony was stunning: on the one hand, businesses and board rooms were buzzing with the new wisdom of Innovation, and yet they couldn’t execute anything innovative because there was no appetite for risk–and this was when times were good:

I don’t want to be flippant about this, but I think marketers need to bring a little balance to the justifiable demand for performance accountability. We do need to be accountable, and we do need to show that we’ve thoroughly vetted the investments we’re making. But when you’re in a competitive market that demands innovation, you have to get in the trenches to help innovation along, instead of just throwing up knee-jerk stop signs to every project that doesn’t come with a business case tied up in a neat bow. It makes me think of a prehistoric fish in a receding inland sea saying to an amphibian “so, what’s the business case for legs?”

With the new economic crisis deepening, this is going to be a critical test for marketers. A steep recession drives a natural imperative for immediate returns. But we’re not just in a recession. We’re at the apex of a global cycle of creative destruction. GM, CitiGroup, New York Times–representative samples of the titan industries of manufacturing, finance and media–are all on the edge of bankruptcy. The businesses that survive this destruction–and the marketers that support them–have to find new ways to drive returns, and those new methods are not going to come gift wrapped in a mature ROI model. In fact, ROI may be entirely the wrong financial metric. But marketers with no grounding in finance, and with no common ground to share with the CFO, won’t be in a position to make those arguments, or to critically challenge the happy case studies offered by vendors.

Fortunately, there are some ports in this storm. There are a few marketing thought-leaders that can not only bridge the gap between CMOs and CFOs, but they have the talent to make marketing finance accessible to mere mortals. One of my favorite lights in this small pantheon is Jonathan Knowles, a banker by training and a brand consultant by trade. Jonathan has written extensively about marketing finance, including an entertaining book on Marketing ROI. I interviewed Jonathan for BusinessWeek back in 2005 and we’ve maintained a friendship ever since. Jonathan has opened my eyes to a number of financial concepts that illuminate marketing trends, including the critical rise of intangible assets as we’ve shifted away from a manufacturing economy.

I’ll be writing a string of posts in conversation with Jonathan over the next few weeks on marketing finance and social media, focusing on the fundamentals marketers need to understand to escape the Cult of Marketing ROI and develop a strong partnership with their CFO. We’re jointly fielding a survey on Social Media Metrics, and Jonathan will be my guest this Friday at the San Francisco Social Media Breakfast. There are a few seats left for the breakftast, which you can pick up online.

Photo credit: allspice1

7 thoughts on “Social Media and the Cult of Marketing ROI

  1. Amol Mohandas

    Good note and initiative.

    I attended the India Social Media Summit 2009 on 26th March and one of the primary topics were ROI for Marketers. To take this topic forward, we (the social network formed during this event) are gathering for a brainstorm on exactly the same topic – Bridging the Social Media Divide which ends exactly at the time the Social Media Breakfast starts. It would be great if a podcast of the Breakfast is floated in space for use of the entire fraternity.

    Follow us on Twitter #bsmd


    Amol Mohandas
    Twitter: PureMajick

  2. Chris Kenton Post author

    Hi Amol. Thanks for commenting. Yes, we’re planning on videotaping our breakfast dialog, and we’ll post the video here. I’ll drop a Tweet with your hashtag to let you know when it’s posted. It usually takes us a week to find the spare time to edit and produce the video.


  3. Amol Mohandas

    Hi Chris, thanks for that ๐Ÿ™‚

    Regarding some good sources of information and insights on this topic, my mentor Ravi Kiran, (CEO – South Asia) Starcom MediaVest Group is very well known for his thought leadership and determination that has changed the rules of the game in this part of the world. You could connect with him on LinkedIn, Facebook by his name.


  4. Michael Cayley

    Hi Chris – thoughtful post.

    I agree.

    I hope that you will review “Introducing Social Capital Value Add”. It is my proposal to address these issues.

    They are clearly top of mind with a lot of people. They were the focus of a panel discussion yesterday at the Web 2.0 Expo & last week on an ROI & measurement panel that I participated in at the Business of Community Networking Conference in Boston.

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  7. Sam Decker

    Great post. I find a lot of companies focus on the social and community part of their strategy and forget the marketing and commerce part. The key is to build a strategy that has harmony between the two. ROI comes from sales and revenue. And the tracking of ROI means that you have to be able to track from the social activity to the sale of a product.

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