ROI has pretty much been the Bermuda Triangle of online marketing. Everyone knows it exists somewhere, but few who have ventured out have ever returned. Perhaps the reason ROI has been such a complex area to navigate over is because we don’t really understand it. Perhaps we need to treat ROI as more of a suggestion than a rule. At least when it comes to social media.

Throw Out the Rules

Marketing Land columnist Courtney Seiter thinks it’s ok if you can’t measure social ROI. She cites an Atlantic Monthly article called “Dark Social” that suggests it’s pretty much impossible to accurately measure social media ROI. Why? Because Facebook and Twitter for example, “represent only a small fraction of the social activity that’s really going on. The article shares evidence that reveals that the vast majority of sharing is still done through channels like email and IM that are nearly impossible to measure (and thus, dark).”

Return on Influence versus Return on Investment

Rather than opting for “cold metrics” like page views, clicks, and impressions, we should be reaching out to the type of audience we’re gathering with our online efforts. Are we just getting clicks (and where are those clicks going, are they converting to sales) or are we getting something more valuable like influence. Influence arguably trumps cold conversion. Influence gets you loyalty, an audience, and (more importantly for cold-metric types, it gets you) repeat conversion and word of mouth.

Instead of thinking about social ROI as an android, think about it more from a human perspective. Social is about the courtship. Where physical store fronts are effaced or replicated across the digital space, social is about that first step a customer takes into your shop. It’s about the first time they meet you. Imagined – or perhaps if you can recall – how turned off you are anytime you go into a shop where you’re tail-gated by attendants, each hawk-eyeing you to see what you’re looking at, what you might buy. It doesn’t encourage a sale. The same goes for when you’re in a social landscape. Customers know if you’re on there to hawk-eye their movement, entrap them into your site, push products your way – versus, when you’re on there to engage them, to find out what they’re all about. That’s where social ROI simply cannot be measures. Social has a huge human factor, and you can’t calculate that – not unless you’re Big Data and even then it can only calculate the likelihood of a future event, not certainties.

Return on Experience

Carrying on with the theme that you’re actually human and so are your customers, Social Media Today writer David Johnson recommends “enchanting” your customers. This comes down to thinking about your clients as more than just transactions, but as people. If you know a client as a special need or a consideration, work to meet that need. Brian gives the example of an expectant customer dropping in the car for service or even an oil change. Surprise that customer with something you might know they need, like a car seat or stroller. At the least, you can leave a baby gift in the car when they come to pick it up. The same goes for any other case – maybe flowers for a death in the family or even coupon or a year’s worth of free oil change if a loyal customer is suffering financial hardship. The same goes for digital shops; if you know your customer is ordering a product for their upcoming wedding, then take a moment to throw in a special little “freebie” product as a “wedding gift”. It doesn’t take a lot but it guarantees not only loyalty and enchantment, but gleaming word of mouth first-hand accounts of you and your company – again and again.