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You’re Thinking About Social Media ROI All Wrong

In his closing keynote at our =LIFT(Social,2015) conference, Adam Schoenfeld threw something up on the big screen that he called “the most dangerous slide of his presentation.”

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Adam was being a bit tongue-in-cheek with that comment, but there’s also truth to his words.

How to Define Social Impact and Communicate Your Performance

Social ROI is one of those terms that drives social marketers crazy, and for good reason. We hear about it so often that promises to “solve the Social ROI problem have become as ubiquitous as new Drake songs.

The problem is that these promises either over-simplify the issue, or over-complicate it. We hear it so often, from so many places, that the term Social ROI doesn’t really mean anything anymore.

The Over-Simplified Example

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “How many sales were driven by social?

Seems simple enough. Let’s call that the definition of Social ROI…unless you operate a brick and mortar storefront and don’t have this direct digital pipeline…or aren’t able to attribute every sale to a specific source…or there’s overlap between social and other marketing channels…or countless other reasons that this becomes difficult.

The Overly Complicated Example

social_roiPerfect. So I plug in my social numbers, including sentiment because somehow that factors into Social as quantifiable return, do some math, and then I know my social media ROI? Sweet. I bet that works for every business, because we all have the exact same goals and tactics for our social program.

The Right Way to Think About Social ROI

Social ROI is a problem because it’s not easy to solve. And it’s not easy to solve because we’re thinking about it wrong.

How are we wrong, Kevin? 

Great question, fictional reader…great question.

During his keynote, Adam followed his Social ROI joke by saying that we should stop talking about Social ROI and start talking about Social Attribution.

I believe this focus on ROI instead of attribution is a fundamental disconnect in the way we operate as marketers, and one that will continue to get in our way until we learn to address it.

Attribution has to Come Before ROI

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 1.54.19 PM Social media is a marketing function. Whether it feeds top-of-the-funnel brand awareness, mid-funnel conversions, or customer satisfaction and lifetime value, we can’t talk about Social ROI until we address the Social Attribution problem.

For the most part, social marketers are missing a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to attributing traffic, conversions, and sales to social media, because we can’t see exactly where a lot of traffic actually came from.

We call this lack of attribution “dark social” and its a bigger issue thank you’d think:

  • According to RadiumOne, 70% of all social sharing is dark.
  • According the The Atlantic, more than 50% of social traffic is dark.
  • According to InsideSocial data, more than 50% of digital sales are dark.

We don’t even know which traffic comes from social, so how can we prove the ROI of our social media programs? Attribution is important, and not just for your peace of mind.

As a social marketer, you need to understand and measure the impact your efforts are having on web and conversion metrics. You’re driving site visits, signups, and sales. Without attribution, you can’t prove that you are actually doing this and all of the credit goes to “direct”, so you are unable to illustrate your true business impact by implementing tracking and attribution tools.

– Brewster Stanislaw

So How Do We Fix the Social Attribution Problem?

There are three steps to consider when trying to solve this problem for your company.

  1. Identification 

The first step is developing an attribution model is to identify this direct traffic and dark sharing of your web content and site traffic.

Link shorteners are a good start, and Google Analytics UTMs shorten the gap, but they’re not solving the whole problem, because users don’t always behave how you tell them to. I don’t always use a share button, sometimes I just copy a link and send it to someone. I don’t always Tweet that link, sometimes I text it, email it, or post it to a private Slack group.

If you look at the URL above this post, you’ll notice a hash and a tracking code appended to it. This allows us to see how this specific blog post is being shared all over the place, even across dark social.

Cookies and other tracking mechanisms allow you to see return visitors, because sometimes I look at a pair of shoes and then go about my business, but that doesn’t mean I forgot about the shoe company, and it doesn’t mean I won’t be back. Partial attribution is going to be a critical component of social activity in the years to come. This is something we should all be focused on.

2. Communication and Integration

One of the reasons that the identification above hasn’t been addressed yet is because of another problem. Social marketing programs are not aligned with other digital marketing functions. They’re not aligned because social isn’t always viewed as a viable marketing channels. It isn’t viewed as viable marketing channels because it isn’t aligned with other marketing functions…See the problem here? This is a cycle that we won’t get out of until we take it on ourselves to make it happen.

We can’t attribute traffic correctly because we’re not partnering with our web optimization team to identify where our “direct” traffic actually comes from. Work with your web team to identify the dark traffic. This will make their program easier to run, and yours more effective.

3. Alignment

Once you’re able to attribute social’s full impact on your business, you can align with the rest of the marketing team, and focus efforts on the areas you have the greatest impact.

This map from Simply Measured’s Senior Director of Marketing Uri Bar-Joseph offers guidance on where to focus when leveling social up to broader marketing objectives.

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Want More?

For an in-depth look at how to focus your social media efforts on the areas where you can make the biggest impact, download our guide, How to Define Social Impact and Share Your Performance by clicking the link below.

Get everything you need to analyze the metrics that matter

How to Define Social Impact and Communicate Your Performance


Kevin Shively

I lead marketing for Simply Measured. Recovering journalist. My team is embarrassed of my hilarious jokes. Firm believer that the best marketers are the best storytellers and the best storytellers use the best data.

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