ROI of social media

Everything you ever wanted to know about social media

Hazardous substances warning sign

 PUBLIC SAFETY WARNING: readers affected by bright, flashing cynicism are advised to wear safety glasses while reading this post (p.s. this post was processed in an office containing nuts) 

Tin of white paint


Reading social media blogs has become a bit like buying white paint … there are countless variations on the theme of white but, essentially, they’re all white. 

So, in the spirit of saving readers valuable time and endless amounts of frustration, below is my white-with-a-hint-of-white, one-size-fits-all, vanilla, all-purpose guide to social media blog posts … the SharePoint 2010 of blog posts, if you will (i.e. it promises everything but you know it’ll fall short): 

  • Why your company does/does not <<delete as appropriate>> need a social media strategy – it doesn’t; except when it does
  • Can you calculate the ROI of social media? – you can’t; except when you can … but I have no idea how, despite the fact that I’m writing my sixteenth blog post on the subject
  • Can you use Facebook as a company intranet? – of course not … it’s an absurd suggestion
  • Why companies which ban employees from accessing Facebook and social sites from work are idiots – because they’re idiots
  • Do companies need social media guidelines for employees? – yes
  • <<insert word>> <<insert word>> <<insert word>> Facebook <<insert word>> <<insert word>> Twitter? – no; or maybe yes
  • …. continue ad nauseam – no!

So there you have it … you can now relax and get back to work happy in the knowledge that you’re fully up-to-speed with the latest social media thinking … 🙂 

[p.p.s sorry for not blogging more frequently, but I find I’ve got nothing to say … now where did I put my medication?!] 

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When innovation becomes a subversive activity …

As times get tough, people get laid off and budgets get squeezed, the facility to try stuff in organisations gets increasingly difficult. The need for watertight, up-front business cases before you can even try anything is probably the most cited reason for failure to kick-start social media tools on intranets. In common with every other commentator on social media, I’ve given my views (here and here for starters!) on the whole subject of the ROI of social media investment.

The rather sad catch 22 situation is that when times get really tough, organisations really need tools that connect people quickly, that cut across organisations boundaries, and that facilitate real-time, fast collaboration and sharing … and yet, during tough times organisations instinctively cut off the blood supply to these solutions to save relatively small amounts of money in the short term.

I’ve always felt that social media tools, and innovation in general for that matter, have subversive roots. The most innovative companies seem to be the ones that are either prepared to tolerate a bit of subversion on the fringes, or actually encourage it. The danger now is that subversion becomes a corporate crime in the drive for short-term cost savings …

My advice to anyone who finds themselves in this kind of situation is  … PROCEED UNTIL APPREHENDED!

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More on ROI of social software …

I’ve just started reading a book called Animate Earth by Stephan Harding – he gave a fantastic presentation at a course I recently attended at Schumacher College. I’ve only read a couple of chapters outlining how, following the collapse of the Catholic Church in the UK, a new science emerged based on reductionist theory – objectifying everything around them to the status of machine component – really a desperate attempt to control nature in the face of collapsing religious certainty.

What’s really striking to me is how much reductionist thinking there is in business today and how this mindset flies in the face of everything that social media is about. Reductionism is the driving force behind the: if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count mentality of misguided leadership in business, politics and society today which is driving quality, innovation and creativity out of our systems and institutions. It is the mindset that demands ROI for everything up front.

The business reductionist thinks that you should be able to take a single social media tool (say a blog) out of its context and measure its value as a standalone machine component … and when they find there is no value, they dismiss blogging as a waste of time … after all, the whole can be no more than the sum of its parts. They also fail to realise that the view you get only reflects the way in which you are looking at something.

The value of social media is unpredictable and emergent which makes it impossible to spell out up front. The value of social media components are in their relationships and their context – both of these are organic and emergent.

Measurement should be confined to things like end-to-end processes. You should be able to freely experiment with the process components and measure the overall impact of that experimentation on the entire end-to-end process. Forcing people to write business cases before every experimentation is pointless and counter-productive.

Every company in existence has aspirations to be ‘innovative’ … at its core, innovation is about trying new stuff. If you don’t let people try new stuff, don’t pretend to be innovative! In a social media world, the whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts – that’s the beauty …

I’m sure I’ve said some of this before … but I don’t think it can be said enough!

How do you measure the ROI of social software??

Unfortunately, this is the most common question I get asked. I say unfortunately because, in my view, the obsession with this question reflects the sorry state of business and government today – namely, if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count. We are driving quality, innovation and creativity out of our businesses and institutions in favour of quantity. It has been shown again and again that our obsession with targets simply perverts activities to meet those targets at the expense of doing something useful or meaningful.

Anyway, rant over, back to the original question. If you’re expecting a neat answer to the ROI question, it’s probably best to quit here and go back to whatever you were doing two minutes ago – provided it was legal of course!

My rather messy and frustratingly incomplete answer to this question is:

  • Don’t spend lots of money and people won’t harass you for pointless justifications – this stuff is cheap to do … if you’re not doing it cheaply then you’ve probably lost your way somewhere.
  • If asked for financial ROI by some senior manager, I would ask them: Would you rather our employees were connected or disconnected? Would you rather we did things once and reused that effort or did it multiple times in different geographical locations? Would you rather know what our employees think and how they feel, or would you rather ignore them and let the grapevine and rumour-mill corrode employee engagement? Do you want the brightest young talent to join our organisation in the future, or would you rather they joined our competitors? Did we measure the ROI of our telephone system or e-mail or were the benefits so blatantly obvious we just deployed them!? etc. etc. etc.
  • This is going to happen anyway … in fact, this is happening already (the BT Facebook network now has over 10,976 people in it and rising) … now is the time to decide if you want to be one step ahead, or one step behind.
  • You can spend months arguing the toss over whether or not to try this out, or you can just give it a try … sometimes, ‘the only form of transportation is a leap of faith’!

My experience is that senior managers who are afraid of social software hide behind pointless ROI arguments. Senior managers who get it, make it happen without endless hoops and hurdles – if you’re faced with the former, then you’re probably talking to the wrong person. Try someone else …

If no one will listen, then just do it anyway … inspirational leaders be the change they want to see, they don’t wait for permission … did Muhammad Yunus give up on micro-credit because everyone told him the poor weren’t credit-worthy??

I know this isn’t the language of accountancy and I know this might seem a daunting prospect in your organisation … but you can try this very simply and cheaply and on a small scale and you will see benefits very quickly.

My last bit of advice is … take it one step at a time and proceed until apprehended! 🙂

Related post: Top tips for launching social media in the enterprise