Let’s start with the good news: it’s possible to measure a broad range of social media metrics. As a marketing channel, social media’s contribution to a brand’s goals is undeniably far-reaching, but it is also complex. Therefore, identifying the return on investment with a high degree of accuracy is challenging.
In this piece, we’re going to look at some of the many ways you might be underestimating social media’s impact.
Here’s the problem:
The array of measurement, tracking and analysis tools available to us can explain a lot of what is happening but rarely all. Depending on the business and how the marketing effort is organised, it may be incredibly hard to know exactly what social media is accomplishing and, importantly, how.
Trying to label and track every campaign may actually be counterproductive. Attempting to assign value to certain events and track individual ads within campaigns across all web traffic can be a costly endeavor both in the set up of the system and the analysis of the data. There is certainly a trade-off between maximising the granularity of analysis and trusting that certain mechanisms are working in your favour in order to get on with things.
Most marketers arrive at a point when enough tracking and analysis is enough. This is usually some point around and beyond setting up the following:
- Platform analytics (e.g. Facebook ads manager data, Twitter or Instagram’s own business analytics, etc.)
- Third-party social media tool analytics (e.g Buffer)
- Google Analytics (or other site data software)
- Tracking links (e.g. UTM codes)
- Call tracking software (e.g. Infinity)
The truth is that even with all this data collection in place, everything that happens on social media cannot be tracked. If data is not tracked, it cannot be analysed and we cannot be certain about the effects.
The known and the unknown of social media ROI
The iceberg of social media ROI is something we depicted many years ago. Whilst the online climate has changed the shape of our iceberg as well as the parts of which sit above and below the surface; the principle of the graphic remains the same. Some effects of social media are evinced. Some are not.
But that’s not the end of the story. Even among the observable benefits of social media marketing, there is the issue of magnitude. In my decade of social media management, I’ve very rarely seen social media’s impact overrepresented in marketing data.
Certainly, those selling social media marketing services will do their best to highlight the role social media is playing in a business’s success but those scrutinising marketing data, both quantitative and anecdotal, generally overlook anything but the most clearly attributable social media wins. It seems it’s the case that because so much of social media we can measure, anything that we can’t, must be down to something else.
Of course, as social media marketers, we know that’s not the case, but knowing exactly where clarity is lost can help explain how social media might really be working even when we cannot see it working.
The 7 Ways You’re Underestimating the ROI of Social Media
1. Social media creates a hive of untrackable activity
This is the very first assumption we must make about social media marketing. For marketers, it is both a blessing and a curse.
A far-reaching social media campaign, epitomized by a well-targeted and well-funded Facebook ads campaign, will find itself in the consciousness of thousands or even millions of individuals in your target audience. Our measurement capabilities stretch only as far as what happens on screen and even that has its limitations.
Customer journies are hugely diverse. People will flit around the internet, forget your brand, remember it again, tell a friend and buy from you six months later. Unless someone clicks on one of these ads and almost immediately makes an enquiry or purchase through your site (that’s tracked properly), there’s very little chance of identifying your influence on their actions in the future.
This is a fact of life that you, your boss, or your client must simply accept. For some brands running certain types of campaigns, the magnitude of the blindspot varies.
2. Asking “Where did you hear about us?” doesn’t work
In lieu of accurate tracking data, a common way to determine the efficacy of any given method of marketing is to simply ask prospects or customers how they came across a company. You’ll have likely seen a drop-down menu to this effect, typically including the options “Google search,” “newspaper ad”, “leaflet”, “a friend” or “social media”. Some businesses will ask for this information over the phone too.
In this kind of rudimentary market research, social media tends to be massively underrepresented. Besides the fact that people usually can’t remember where they first encountered a brand, people tend to be general about their response. “The internet” is a common source of leads – no surprises there. But it was likely a Google search or social media post that first presented the brand to them.
I’d speculate that there’s also an inherent bias away from social media as people don’t necessarily want to admit they spend too long on social media or that they’ve been suckered in by a Facebook ad. I find it more palatable to suggest I discovered a company of my own accord after a thorough Google search and that my decision to purchase was entirely down to my unique exploration.
3. Its role in decision making is complex
Even if someone hasn’t discovered a brand via social media, it’s common practice for people to check a brand’s social media accounts to find out a little more about a company. This is primarily to seek social proof – that other, relatable, humans use products and services from this company and even align themselves with the brand. This includes reading reviews and seeing the sheer volume of fans a brand has.
They might also be seeking evidence that the business is fully legitimate and operational. They may be looking for more information about the products or services, including images, opening times or for a discount code for their imminent purchase. The reality is that social media won’t be attributed as the source of this traffic or potential business, but it has played a very real role in influencing a final buying decision.
Have you ever Googled a company only to find negative reviews or a Twitter spat and be completely put off buying from them? This complex, multi-channel decision-making process became known as the “zero moment of truth” after a 2011 Google analysis.
4. Social media inspires Google searches
One of the most common actions an interested individual will take after seeing content on social media is to perform an internet search for the brand they’ve just seen. Of course, these branded searches will pull up paid and organic results. Subsequent clicks to the website will be attributed to organic search or pay-per-click ads. If the URL is simple, some users will type this into the address bar and reach the website as “direct” traffic.
This phenomenon can be witnessed by monitoring search engine traffic during significant periods of social media activity. With one client, the impact was stark; there was an almost perfect correlation between Facebook ads spend and the spend on their branded Google ads. The bottom line: search volumes increased significantly when they invested in Facebook ads.
Note that it might require a significant social ad spend or a viral campaign to generate enough of a spike in search traffic to be able to confidently say to your client “look, this search traffic is clearly happening because of social media” but this will depend on the baseline level of web traffic and how stable it is.
5. Traffic from social media isn’t always shown in Google Analytics
Besides the fact that many users initially inspired by social media will reach a website in a roundabout way, even direct clicks from social media to a website aren’t always tracked. There are several potential reasons this happens. Most are beyond the scope of this article, but often traffic from social media ends up attributed to “(direct)” traffic in Google Analytics. This is usually to do with how traffic makes its way from social media apps through to your website.
Each measurement or tracking issue has its own solution and some represent a greater degree of error than others. Through close scrutiny of the metrics recorded by your social platforms and comparing with Google Analytics data, you should be able to work out where some discrepancies are occurring. A quick Google search for the issue you’re experiencing should yield some tips for sorting it out.
6. “Brand awareness” is not trackable
Real-life display marketing such as bus, billboard, London Underground and magazine advertising has been trusted as a valuable source of brand awareness for over 100 years. In this world of advertising, it is sufficient to make claims about the number of individuals who will see a given advert over a given period to justify spending a five or six-figure sum on the media. Why? Because we don’t need to see the results to believe it has a positive impact. We know that over time, seeing a brand, product or service enough times, will benefit sales.
Seth Godin, in his book This is Marketing, insists that there’s no point in trying to track the value of brand awareness marketing. Instead, businesses should trust that it’s working for them and keep it consistent. Whilst this trust is evident in more traditional marketing channels, it seems because there is the ability to track ROI from social media, that the brand awareness it generates should be discarded unless we can prove it delivers sales.
Companies selling this media can model the tangible impact of these campaigns, but they have nowhere near the tracking capability of the social networks to determine the people reached how they engaged with the ad.
7. Hidden influence on repeat custom
One of the most significant challenges facing social media marketers is demonstrating that a previous customer has returned to make an enquiry or purchase because of social media. For consumer brands, using tracking links or discount codes may well be trackable, but for B2B or less-trackable leads, it can be impossible to assess.
For example, LinkedIn is a fantastic platform to connect and engage with businesspeople. A strong LinkedIn presence is likely to drum up new business from someone’s existing network who might pick up the phone and make a direct enquiry. So how does one prove it was only because of the social media activity that a client from years ago becomes become one again?
The bottom line
The issue of lead tracking is an age-old issue but social media still bears the brunt of skepticism over return on investment. What this post should have helped with is understanding the most common areas where social media tends to lose out in terms of its role in online marketing. I hope that this helps you in reasoning why social media may well be having a greater impact than it appears!