The first part of this blog on social media and marketing arrived at the observation that questioning the value of social media to your business is fine, but not bothering to look for an answer will be deadly.

Most businesses now understand that they cannot chose to ignore the question of how engagement in social media can benefit their business, so the search for an answer as to how this will work for them is now underway at most firms.

Of course, business being business, these explorations are rightly being rooted in questions of return on investment. In this light, understanding the value of social media to your business is the most critical first step in establishing a truly effective and value-generating social media strategy.

As previously mentioned, the first generation of social media specialists’ exploration of the revolutionary change coming through social media convinced forward-looking people in many organizations that the external revolution required an internal revolution.

Because social media engagement for business was a new concept, many early-adopters had no basis on which to develop business objectives and associated strategy, so instead of defining their objectives then implementing tools and services to support those objectives, they worked backwards, implementing tools and services, then trying to define the things that could be accomplished with them.

Accordingly, many of these programs were built around the vision and marketing of tool vendors and consultants rather than on the reality of the technology available or the organization’s actual readiness to leverage social media for business outcomes. Thus, when questions of ROI were asked, very often, good answers could not be delivered.

Thus, these first efforts to deliver value to business through social media have led to skepticism within management around the potential for value from social media, even while these same managers recognize the importance to search for the value that surely value must be there.

Thankfully, these first efforts have also helped to establish that while social media is both a catalyst for and result of a revolutionary shift in the way people engage with their world through digital communications (which underlies the need for business to engage), establishing valuable engagement in social media and becoming a social business will not be the result of a revolution in organizational thought practice or data, but must be driven by a disciplined evolution of business processes across the organization.

Establishing the return on social media investment is not a simple exercise. In general, ROI calculations are complicated when multiple investments contribute to a single measured return (i.e. how social media works with other communications in driving sales) or when a single investment contributes to multiple measured outcomes (such as the respective values of social media research, awareness generation and loyalty building) or when the outcomes of an investment are difficult to quantify (as in the three “returns” from social media mentioned above). Obviously, these can all be the case in measuring social media ROI.

Given these challenges, organizations must give themselves every advantage possible in establishing the value of their social media efforts. A program commenced without clear objectives will be impossible to frame in terms of return on investment, since the areas of return will always be unclear (and often in dispute).

In any business’ evolution toward social business, understanding the value of that evolution is fundamental. Setting objectives for that value requires up-front thought about where the business can be made stronger through the technologies and capabilities available through social media. This is a business strategy conversation, an it must take place for a business to provide a return on investment in social media through any function; PR/communications, customer service/support, consumer intelligence/marketing research or marcomms.

Social media efforts that begin as a functional program and then seek to prove value to the larger organization are at a disadvantage to those that begin as organizational objectives and then become refined for execution and targeted outcomes within each function. Functional programs can serve as pilot projects that illuminate options for the larger organization, but evolution to social business will require strategy that stretches across silos and puts measurable business objectives first.

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