What is the ROI in Social Media? Humana, EMC, MarketSpace, Communispace at MassTLC

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A forum organized by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council addresses one of the hottest questions in social media: how do you measure the return on investment (ROI) for these platform? The panel, part of a “Social Media Summit” hosted in Microsoft’s Cambridge offices, was moderated by Dave Vellante, co-founder of the Wikibon Project and featured Fred Cremo of Humana, Leslie Forde of Communispace, Chuck Hollis of EMC and Katrina Lowes of Market Bridge. The panel followed danah boyd’s keynote on “social media evolution and digital ethnography.”

Chuck Hollis kicked off the panel by defining the challenge of measuring this kind of interaction and usage. “How do you measure a good conversation? A good idea? You guys are measuring the wrong thing.”

Lowes, whose focus on results and specific case studies throughout, put ROI in the context of creating relationships with Medicare recipients. The campaigns she has been involved with have been razor-focused on measuring all of the interactions, including what people are interested in. She described a partnership with Eons to host and provide discussion groups. Using them, they watch what people are talking about. As people move towards trigger point for Medicare, they watch more closely. As Lowes noted, “you get one chance to get a 65 year old into Medicare. If you can get people interacting with you three times before 64, you become relevant. That will have an impact on conversion rates.” At present, they’re taking a research-based approach to measuring impact utilizing a control group for direct mail and comparing it to the conversion rates of different groups based on a mix of social media presentations.

After a while, the audience grew restive, looking for a measure of hard ROI that could be used to justify social media use. The panelists understand the issues, especially at a large enterprise:

“When executives ask about social media ROI, they’re asking about risk. Why should I change decades of experience?”-@ChuckHollis

Hollis noted, in following, that managing risk in social media is challenging but possible: “negativity is passion that needs to be channeled to constructive conversations,”

Forde also sees the challenges for engagement marketing. With consumers (and users in general on the public Internet, you simply don’t know what you’re going to hear. (Note the Skittles experience). As she noted “in opening dialogue, you get serendipity & surprises.” For instance, Forde cited a case study provided by Kraft. People on their discussion boards were talking about weight loss through portion control. “Why can’t you make a tiny bag?” Kraft listened — and in the first six month, Kraft’s “Calorie Pack” earned more than $100 million dollars of revenue. Forde noted that the marketing campaign and manufacturing cycle in a one third of the time.

Forde noted as well that “It’s amazing how self-policing communities can be.” In her experience, community managers rarely have to step in and intervene. It is necessary, on occasion, to send private emails or direct messages and pull aside members to assert norms. How do you manage risk? Hollis noted that “EMC had a governance board for each project. They met once — and never met again. We never had a problem – but the structure was there to address it if necessary.”

When queried about adoption of social media by enterprises, Lowes voiced a key concern: “Everyone is in love with the technology. They haven’t thought about maintaining the conversations.” In her view, a company needs to have someone passionate to engage people and answer questions. The issue that many organizations are having with community management and conversation curation lies in a widespread tendency to put lower-paid people customer service reps. It’s not about technology or governance. It’s about skills, behaviors and attitudes. In Forde’s view, it’s about “trust, transparency and demonstration of listening.” That means that organization need to allow customers to be heard, with the understanding that it’s crucial to nurturing a long term relationship. That means “building websites around their interests and preferences, raising awareness of a company as a trusted partner,” according to Cremo — not through pushing sales directly.

When I stepped out, however, I returned to a groundswell of pushback for the panel. Where are quantitative social media metrics? Hard ROI? “The problem with social media is that we’re all talking to each other,” as one audience member put it. He stated that the total social media spend is “0.4% of the total annnual advertising budget in Fortune 500.” (That number was cited as $250B). Where’s the real return?

In response, Katrina Lowes offered the most substantive response of the day. “Consider: I’ve got a video to put online or on broadcast. You need to calculate the advertising comparison impact between the two mediums… How much would I have had to pay to get this exposure in traditional media?” She suggest looking at click through rates (CTR) of a cluster demographic from a social media platform or campaign back to the launch page of your website. Measure “Media equivalent purchase value” and conversion traffic, in other words, when it comes to ROI.

Forde noted that it’s also key to consider cultural differences, especially overseas, particularly with respect to hierarchical processes. If decisions are made once a month by a small group, observe how that can be improved. For instance, asynchronous tools can help – a lot – with time to market for products or campaigns. She cited one client where a 52-week time to market was cut to 14 weeks.

Considerable concern still remained in the audience with regard to unleashing social media internally. “What about the sexting that’s going to happen in my company.” Executives are worried about risk.

They should be, as Lowes noted. By tracking & gathering people’s personally identifiable information (PII) at Humana, they’re liable under HIPAA. That’s a major responsibility. Given the longevity & permanency of data on these platforms, organizations must be mindful of measuring ROI in more than conversion; they need to consider the risks of the overall project.

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5 responses to “What is the ROI in Social Media? Humana, EMC, MarketSpace, Communispace at MassTLC

  1. Thanks for the summary Alex. Interesting to hear that the audience was unwilling to take the leap of faith, and instead wanted number. Maybe the title of the event had something to do with it.

  2. The audience reaction is similar to the hesitation and lack of understanding one feels upon signing up for Twitter. There is no evidence to provide encouragement. However, if you dive in and participate the value becomes apparent.

  3. digiphile

    I wasn’t surprised at all by that resistance, given that I also showed up with the expectation of hearing more hard numbers and case studies. The panel offered some of the latter; I blogged above about the relevant comparison of paid media buys to what a broadcast placement might cost.

    The metrics that I expected to hear — return on marketing objective, for instance, as measured by mentions or links from influencers — weren’t introduced. Twitter entered the conversation (and was an active back channel, at #MassTLC) but didn’t receive much notice with respect to measurement. The somewhat shallow post I wrote last month, “How do you measure social media ROI on Twitter? A ReTweetability Index?,” was more granular than what was offered.

    I think the audience needed hard numbers to take back to execs to justify why this stuff is worth getting into. Doing social media “right” takes an investment of time, both for listening, learning the social mores and identifying people within the organization and outside of it who can communicate effectively about a brand, product, service or even personality.

    I was surprised that we didn’t hear at all about inbound links, given the relationship between social media marketing and SEO. There’s a direct business case there to be made.

    That said, there were other case studies that noted improved time to market; I’d imagine any manufacturer that spends money on focus groups would take notice of that.

    With respect to your second comment, Jim, it occurs to me that we now have two years worth of examples of how, where, when and why Twitter can work well, if people choose to read them before joining. You’re right; it’s necessary to listen and follow people for a while before that value becomes apparent. Perhaps it’s not clear to enough folks because the listening skill isn’t one that we value enough as a culture.

    My two cents.

  4. dagholmboe

    Good summary.

    I attended the conference as well. The reason to attend is that I wanted to better understand the current market place with respect to social media ROI. I was very surprised to find that there is basically none.

    Last week, I pulled together a Social Media ROI spread sheet. It is based on work by Charlene Li and Bill Johnston. I put in on my blog and had so far close to 300 downloads. To me that shows there is a need. (http://dagholmboe.wordpress.com).

    A solid ROI calculation deals with everything from traffic, conversions, demographics of users, decreased sales cycle (saving cost of sales), decreasing time to manage negative UGC and so on.

  5. Great post, bad event.

    I was really, really disappointed in this event. There was no description, so you had to assume that the title said it all – “The ROI of Social Media”, but that’s not what they talked about.

    In fact, the first mention of ROI was when an angry attendee asked an ROI question 1 hour and 40 minutes into the event. (I actually looked at my watch at the time).

    If there was an easy way to do it, I would have asked for my money back. The real shame is that I can’t get my 4 hours back.

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