It’s been called the single biggest challenge facing social media managers, and it’s especially true for small businesses looking to make an investment in their online marketing. How exactly do you measure return on investment on social media?

After all, whether you’re paying someone to drum up business through the power of social media or you’re investing your own time in trying to do it on your own, you want to make sure you’re getting out of it at least what you put into it, right?

The Problem

The problem comes from the fact that measuring ROI on social media can be a little nebulous at times. After all, how do you put a dollar value on something like a like or a share? It can be tricky, but ultimately if we’re going to determine what your business is getting out of social media, we need to be able to approximate this dollar value to some degree.

An illuminating post on the Hootsuite blog attempts to spell out some measure of ROI conversion, particularly to those looking strictly at revenue.

The formula, which Hootsuite couches in the caveat that this is not a catch-all, is simply:

Profit / total investment (people hours, ad budget, etc.) X 100 = social media ROI (as a percentage).

Beyond Revenue

But what if you want to look beyond revenue? While increasing sales is certainly a key goal in starting a social media campaign, it’s not necessarily the only one. As such, the “profit” side of that equation can be a little hard to measure.

Writing in MITSloan Management Review, Donna L. Hoffman and Marek Fodor suggest flipping the script. Instead of measuring your own investment, you should be tracking your customers’ investment in your social media message. Start by evaluating what your goals are in terms of what marketing objectives a social media campaign would satisfy (brand engagement, etc.) and what behaviors you’re looking to encourage in your customers (posting a comment, sharing content, etc.). From that standpoint, you can begin to measure your ROI not in dollars, but in the effectiveness of the campaign in meeting those goals.

“The social metrics that reflect these kinds of social media behaviors are important not only because they let marketers measure the bottom-line impact of their social media efforts,” writes Hoffman and Fodor, “but also because they focus marketers’ attention on social media strategies that take into account the objectives of both the brand and the online customer.”

But by all means, feel free to measure your social media in terms of a set dollar value, tying it to sales. Your Key Performance Indicators are your own, after all.

In fact, setting those KPIs is a vital first step according to AdAge. In their article, “Five Steps To Measuring Your Social Media ROI,” they posit that ROI can mean anything here from increased sales to more familiarity among journalists. Again, it’s not held to a dollar amount.

That same article continues with every step essentially branching off of that one crucial decision. Aligning social media goals with your business goals is the second step, which again should be a key factor in setting those KPIs in the first place. Another step encourages you to set values to those KPIs, which again should have played into which were selected.

Utilizing Analytics

But one step that is particularly helpful, mentioned in this AdAge article, is setting up Google Analytics. This is a powerful tool available to everyone, especially those who are looking beyond dollar signs to proof of engagement across social media channels. Once you get the hang of it, you can use Google Analytics to track any number of consumer behaviors, including how many potential customers are coming to your site through channels like Twitter, Instagram, etc.

That same Hootsuite blog post linked earlier recognizes that revenue is not always the only KPI; that often social media marketers must be able to demonstrate results that don’t carry a dollar value. As such, they assembled a few measurable objectives, such as Business conversions (such as customer acquisition or lead generation); Brand awareness or perception; Customer experience and Security and risk mitigation. And furthermore, they encourage setting each of those goals using the S.M.A.R.T. criteria.

Some examples are clear cut: if your goal is increased revenue, use the tools at your disposal to measure where leads came from. Set a clear goal, say 10 percent of leads should come from social media per quarter, then constantly audit to see if you’re meeting those goals. If your goal is to enhance the customer experience, record response times and set clear goals for cutting them down by a certain percentage per quarter.

Starting from this frame of mind, even so-called vanity metrics like reach become vital intelligence. If you’re looking to build brand awareness, those likes and shares aren’t just signs that you’re popular on social media. They are signs that your campaign is accomplishing its goal, even if you can’t necessarily put a dollar value on it.

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