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Are You Measuring Social Media or Playing Bingo?

Last week, Radian6 hosted its first user conference and I was impressed with the content, speakers, and the logistics of the event itself. One of the panels I attended was the ROI panel, in large part to support Ken Burbary and KD Paine but I realized while listening to the confusion and arguments that started that I am a glutton for punishment. I have never really understood why this topic generates so much discussion and confusion. In my mind ROI is quite simple – the investment in time and resources into an activity and the value you get in return. It’s a financial calculation and it is sometimes, but not always, the way to measure the success of a business initiative. Particularly in ambiguous or innovative efforts there are often benefits which justify the expenditure that have nothing to do with financial return. How you justify your business projects depends entirely on your leadership team and what kind of progress and benefits they need to see in order to make the investment. No one can give you that answer unless they are intimately familiar with situation.

So, I dislike this conversation. It seems to go around and around and I am never quite sure why. But I had a bit of an aha moment during the session when an audience member got up, clearly frustrated and looking for specific answers which none of the experts will provide because measurement is so context specific that, in fact, it would be irresponsible to do so.  However, it finally hit me why there is such frustration. People who started down the social media path because their customers were pulling them in that direction are now swimming in information. They need more resources to coordinate and build on their initial successes and to provide that, executives are asking for proof of value. So they go on a hunt to string together the data that will prove that.

The problem? There is a sea of data because online everything can be measured. There is too much data in fact. It blurs and confuses people because it seems like it all should be useful. But it is not. Add to that, there are literally hundreds of benefits that social methodologies can provide an organization but only a handful that will matter to any one executive. You simply cannot start measuring the value of using social tools if you try to build the case from the bottom up. You will be sifting through and rolling up data forever. How frustrating.

The antidote? You have to start with a goal that means something to the person from whom you need support. Once you identify that, the exercise in proving value becomes a bit more obvious. Issues remain in that social methods are typically only one part of what is required to achieve a business goal. Ken Burbary had a great suggestion when that is the case: measure performance of a process before you apply social methods to it and after – and see if it moves the needle. If it doesn’t, that may not be the best use of a social approach.

For those swimming in data and on the hunt for the measurements that matter, the necessarily vague general conversation about measurement doesn’t seem helpful and is not specific or actionable. However, the experts in the space continually reinforce the concept of starting with the goal. If you don’t know what the goal is and are trying to ‘find’ it through the data, you will continue to be frustrated. If you don’t have a clearly articulated goal, a better idea is to start with a hypothesis and see if you can prove it out, if not work on a new hypothesis until you find one that shows a positive return. But please start with a goal to prove not a bunch of data. Data without context makes no sense.

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