don’t let your social media budget slip up up up and away

The social media management industry has reached an important inflection point. One where it must demonstrate, with real data, its ROI to the boardroom.

Back in 1999, in a document written by myself and Lizzie Jackson to justify investment in the BBC’s first audience communities, we suggested that online communities would increase loyalty, encourage return visits, and build deeper engagement with audiences. To demonstrate our progress, we created a “weekly message board health check” where we recorded the number of new user registrations, new posts, posts removed by moderators, and highlighted interesting quotes from participants. We had no targets – other than “up, up up” –  nor did we have a strategy beyond serving the needs of participants who we knew wanted spaces where they could interact with BBC brands, programme makers and each other.

Sound familiar? This is the same message, nearly fifteen years later, that many agencies continue to peddle to their clients.

In a recent post, Dachis Group Europe’s Lee Bryant quotes some insight from an Altimeter study of nearly 700 executives and social strategists, highlighting the disconnect between many brands’ social media strategies and business outcomes:

“… we found that only 34 percent of businesses felt that their social strategy was connected to business outcomes and just 28 percent felt that they had a holistic approach to social media, where lines of business and business functions work together under a common vision. A mere 12 percent were confident they had a plan that looked beyond the next year.”

As Brian Solis and Charlene Li put it in the report:

“The crux of the problem is that many so-called social strategies are not innately linked to business goals. They are instead often guided by a peer- or competitive-driven “social for social’s sake” philosophy. And even where clear goals do exist, social initiatives face challenges in the form of a lack of defined strategy, governance, and funding.”

As I’ve written here before, where a void exists between social strategies and business outcomes, brands are destined to fail. Those clients still fixated on “up, up, up” in their numbers of fans and followers might not recognise that failure today but they’ll soon cotton on. Where, however, a brand sets off to deliver against identifiable strategic objectives, not only are they more likely to achieve a positive return on that investment, but they’ll also be able to measurably demonstrate that success.

I’ve benefited both personally and professionally from the rise and increased professionalisation of the community management industry over the years: a well managed community offers an undeniably better experience for participants than an unmanaged one, and I’ve built a career around my ability to bring people and brands closer together in digital environments. That, however, isn’t going to convince senior managers or shareholders that an ongoing investment in social media is justified.

If, like me, you make your living by helping brands engage with audiences online, now is the time to dig out your brand’s strategy and make an honest assessment of how your social media activities thus far have contributed measurably towards meeting strategic outcomes. If the answer is “I don’t know”, “not much”, or “not enough” it may very well be time – before your client comes to the same conclusion and jumps ship to another agency, or reigns in their social media spending, in response – to shift gears. Don’t let that client slip away…