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Why ROI metric misses value of Social PR

As director of social media for a busy PR agency, rarely a day goes by without a C-level exec asking me to prove the return on investment of social media. What they hate to hear is the truth: business metrics can’t measure the value of a communications tool. The other meanings of the acronym are “return on ignoring” and “return on influence.” I’ve seen many eyes roll when I explain these terms.

Mar-Comm folks ask different questions regarding the use of social technologies and are the easiest to convince. They’re usually sold when we deconstruct their news releases into enough Twitter content to last a week, when we provide them with (free) market feedback on their new product via a Facebook poll, when we syndicate their corporate blogs onto hugely trafficked sites like Digg; or when we create social news backgrounders for their media kits. When they see how earned blogger coverage turns into viral tweets and link backs to the corporate newsroom multiply, everyone’s happy and calls it a day.

The point is when it comes to web communications, social technologies are simply another tool to get the word out. If your word is announcing a sale, it’s easy to evaluate your return on investment. There’s plenty of web analytics and social web trackers to figure out click thrus and give you an idea of direct impact on sales.

When you use social media effectively, which includes: changing your message throughout the day, participating in industry conversations, responding to questions, redirecting stakeholders to resources, keeping an eye on your competitors, commenting on influential blog postings, acknowledging negative sentiment, then measuring a return on investment is a bit more subtle.

The cost of Social PR should be absorbed by the corporate communications/media relations departments. One could argue with the decrease in traditional media outlets it’s really more of a re-allocation of resources, not an overall budget increase.

How does one measure the cost of damage to Air Canada’s reputation in 24 hours because they didn’t acknowledge a cry for help, which they could have done in 140 characters in less than a minute?

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