Social media can help businesses serve customer needs across the lifecycle, not just at the top of the sales funnel.
While the topic of return on investment with social media participation seems to polarize many marketing, advertising, and public relations pundits, there are a growing number of companies and agencies that are implementing social media marketing and analysis efforts to answer the question firsthand.
We've all read about or seen favorite examples going back to Dell Outlet selling a few million dollars worth of discounted computer equipment through Twitter, to Blendtec selling more blenders because of its YouTube videos showing what happens when a Blendtec meets an iPhone, or a rake. Of course, there's also the famed Old Spice example of selling more body wash because of Isaiah Mustafa on a horse on a beach.
It's about the customers. Besides those very viral and frequently shared social media ROI examples, there are also marketers that realize that it's not always about selling widgets on Facebook or YouTube. It's about the connections they make with customers being instrumental for recommendations and serving as inspiration to buy. It might not mean purchasing at the moment of social media interaction, but at some point in the future as the customer navigates the search, social, and mobile web.
It's about relationships. The value companies can get from investment in social media is directly tied to the relationships they build with customers and a relevant community. If a business wants to sell more widgets through Twitter, they could certainly achieve that goal providing they understand what information and experiences trigger those purchases and respond with an appropriate customer engagement plan. Whether Twitter is the sales channel or simply a proxy to the sales experience depends on the customers - not the brand's objective of selling widgets on Twitter.
ROI is also about cost savings. Sometimes realizing measurable business value from social media investment is a matter of creating efficiencies as some companies have by developing internal social network platforms that result in more effective collaboration and operational effectiveness. Those efficiencies often translate into better, faster, and more useful information for customers that result in cost savings or even more sales.
Measure what matters. The better connections brands have with consumers, the more likely those consumers will be positively inclined to buy. Many social media ROI models are based on a direct marketing approach with an offer and response model. The problem is that companies are chasing after a platform where relevant customers might be vs. understanding how to influence those customers through a social experience. The ROI from social media investment doesn't have to come from direct sales through social networks, but that's exactly how most companies evaluate.
It's about inspiration and influence. A lot of productive social media marketing efforts are more likely to influence business outcomes than be the channel where those outcomes occur. Public and media relations, for example, isn't that different. Positive media coverage creates awareness and inspires search or discovery of the brand and the sale occurs on the company website. Social experiences can provide brand-advertising benefits and inspire consumers to buy sooner, more quantity, or more often, as well as to choose one brand vs. another. What company wouldn't want to sell more products, more often, more quickly?
Here are a few interesting data points and examples that suggest a correlation between social engagement and consumer buying behavior:
The missing piece to many assessments of what value social media participation provides is that most marketers are chasing popular platforms with their own interpretation of what will motivate customers to buy. What they should be doing is understanding customer preferences and optimizing for the kinds of social experiences that will not only inspire purchase, but social sharing, advocacy, and loyalty. Social media is a communications platform that can help businesses serve customer needs across the lifecycle, not just at the top of the sales funnel. Understand that and an entirely new opportunity is revealed.
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Lee Odden is the CEO of TopRank Online Marketing, a digital marketing agency specializing in helping companies grow online business and community with an "Optimize and Socialize" approach to content marketing. Odden has consulted for hundreds of B2B clients over the past 14 years including: McKesson, Marketo, PRWeb, and StrongMail. He's been cited by The Economist, BtoB Magazine, and Advertising Age for his online marketing expertise and publishes one of the most popular marketing blogs on the web: Online Marketing Blog, ranked the No. 1 content marketing blog three times by Junta42. Odden speaks on the intersection of search and content marketing, PR, and social media at conferences internationally and is the author of "Optimize: How to Attract and Engage More Customers by Integrating SEO, Social Media and Content Marketing."
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