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The Problem with What Social Media Purists Preach

It's really kind of sad that social media marketing advice evolved the way it did. Social media enthusiasts in the mid-2000s interpreted and preached the principles of the Cluetrain with a vengeance.

Their themes included "talk with your customers, not at them," "engage your audience," and the ever-popular (and really annoying) "join the conversation!"

This last talking point even became the title of social media pioneer and agency entrepreneur Joseph Jaffe's book.

Join the Conversation 4 did an excellent job of pounding the purist drum and pointing businesses down the road of changing their traditional ways to connect or reconnect with a dissatisfied consumer. But for all the talk of collaboration and community, the book only offered real-world case studies of companies that made marketing missteps, but never really talked about whether or not "conversational marketing" actually works.

Unfortunately, Jaffe's gaffe was the loudest song being sung by social media evangelists in the late 2000s. They would talk about the touchy-feely part—we call it the Kumbaya Effect—but they conveniently overlooked the other half of the equation: the bottom line.

To be fair, this was when social media marketing was just getting started, and the evangelist needed to spend a lot of time teaching businesspeople how to just listen to the new, connected customer. He or she didn't have time to focus on harder topics such as how to measure conversations or the ROI of social media.

The social media purists even had us convinced. In October 2008, Jason wrote a blog post on SocialMediaExplorer.com called "What Is the ROI for Social Media?" that still garners a fair amount of traffic and discussion. He wrote:

  • "The problem with trying to determine ROI for social media is you are trying to put numeric quantities around human interactions and conversations, which are not quantifiable."

(This is the business equivalent of your kids finding photos of you wearing your favorite clothes 20 years ago.)

Thankfully, Jason's opinions have evolved in the years since. His focus is now on social media measurement and monitoring for his clients, cutting out the purist's bullshit and getting down to the business at hand.

Social business and technology analyst Jeremiah Owyang of The Altimeter Group confirmed that you can, in fact, measure social media and its return on investment:

  • "Human interactions can certainly be measured. You can measure time spent together, eye contact, words exchanged, sentiment, tone and body language. Now with the digital mediums like social, you can find attributes that also relate to those: time on site, words exchanged, sentiment and tone... but not body language.
  • "To truly measure ROI, the interactions and engagements in the social space have to be measured in one of the two following ways: 1) Specific actions have direct trackable activities that lead to generating a lead or transaction. This could be a unique URL, cookie or even registration code. Or 2) Track it post-purchase by asking questions right after or running a survey to all customers later."

Owyang often cites his boss, Charlene Li, and her case study of defining the ROI of corporate blogging for General Motors and the GM Fastlane Blog.5 When Li was with Forrester Research, she helped devise a measurement system that included translating the number of unique blog readers to the cost of reaching the same number of people via a regular advertising channel. She then determined the time and financial costs of blogging to produce an "ROI of Blogging."

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