Which Social Media Site Should You Use for the Greatest Return on Investment?


That’s right. You shouldn’t use any. If the deciding factor of whether or not to spend your time on Facebook over Twitter or LinkedIn over Pinterest solely comes down to which will bring you the highest ROI, you need your hand slapped and your computer taken away from you. And maybe even a disapproving look.

You may hate this next part, but I’m going to say it anyway. There is no such thing as a return on investment for social media.

Of all things that keep your business running each day, why do you choose this one to measure in order to see the value that it brings? Do you calculate the ROI on your office phone system? Or how about that new leather couch in the waiting room? Or the art on the wall of the conference room? Or even the receptionist answering the phone?

All of these things play a roll in how your business runs, don’t they? Just because you can’t chart out their value does not mean that you should get rid of them.

This is the Part Where You Disagree and Call Me Names

The argument is often that without some type of measurement, how can you justify where you are spending your time to your boss, your clients and even yourself?

You can’t.

So instead of just being OK with the fact that we don’t have a specific measurement, we solve this little dilemma by creating fancy words like “engagement” in order to make us all feel like there is a tangible goal waiting for us at the end of this whole social media maze.

But there is not. Sorry.

There is no finish line. No goal post. No target.

Social media cannot be defined by action steps or to-dos. There is no formula or road-map. It is not something that you can schedule or measure. And you can’t buy it or fake it.

This is the Part Where Your Mind Gets Blown

Social media is not Facebook or Twitter. Pinterest or LinkedIn. YouTube or MySpace…it’s definitely not MySpace. These sites are not social media. These sites are a vehicle.

Social media is you. And me. And that annoying guy that’s always trying to sell you some piece of crap information product. And the woman who posts all of those cat videos. It’s your best friend. And that guy from your high school football team that never said a word to you back in the day but is now always commenting on your status. It’s the people that you have never met in person and yet you would offer them your couch if they needed a place to stay. And it’s your family that you have known your whole life and yet you would never think of offering them your couch if they needed a place to stay.

Social media is about relationships.

How do you quantify that? How do you create a pretty graph that shows the return on investment for your relationships? You don’t calculate the ROI of your marriage, do you? Because if you did you probably wouldn’t be married anymore. What is the ROI of your parents? Your friends? Co-workers? Neighbors? What is the return on investment of that stranger you are sitting next to on the subway?

You don’t calculate the ROI for relationships because there is none. And since social media is all about building relationships wouldn’t that mean that there is no return on investment for social media?

This is the Part Where I Cleverly Use an Example to Support My Position

When the lights went out the night of the Superbowl, the agency handling the Oreos social media campaign was on it. They posted a Tweet about dunking in the dark. It was awesome. The timing was perfect. And the idea was brilliant. They were carried off the field on the proverbial shoulders of marketing geeks like myself as this one little Tweet was shared over a hundred thousand times in what seemed like seconds.

And rightfully so.

Yet, do you know how many more Oreos they sold that night because of that Tweet? Around zero. Do you know how many more Oreos they were hoping to sell that night because of that Tweet? Around zero.

The purpose of that Tweet was not to get us to bum rush the store looking for Oreos during the game. It was to connect to us. To let us see Oreo as more than just a cookie. To show us that Oreos could actually be our cool friend.

Maybe someday someone will be standing in the cookie aisle stuck between choosing a box of Oreos and a box of Nutter Butters. And maybe that person will feel more of a connection to Oreos because of that Tweet or because they are connected on Twitter or Facebook. And maybe that will be the deciding factor that gets them to buy the Oreos.

Maybe. Maybe not.

It doesn’t matter. How would you even attribute that particular sale to that particular Tweet anyway? You can’t.

But just because you can’t doesn’t make social media a waste of time. Just because you can’t doesn’t make it meaningless. And just because you can’t doesn’t mean that you stop.

Instead, you should continue to connect with people and build relationships without some ulterior motive of “what’s in it for me?”

This is the Part Where I Tie This Whole Thing Up in a Pretty Little Bow

Social media is hard enough without the added pressure of charts and graphs. Or deadlines and milestones. It’s just as difficult if not more so than making real friends in real life.

And that can be tough!

Think back to high school. Imagine if someone was following you around monitoring your every move. Get turned down by a girl? Called a name while in the shower in gym? Stand in front of the class with your fly down? All converted into a nice little chart to display how ineffective you were at making new friends this week.

You would likely just give up. Study your butt off and get through school however you had to and then move on.

And this is what happens with social media. There are hundreds of thousands of people, brands and companies out there that want to get involved. They want to reach out. They want to connect. And they want to build relationships.

But they are scared.

Scared they are doing it wrong. Or it’s not worth the effort. Or they don’t know what they are doing. Or they just plain forgot how to be human beings when sitting in front of the computer.

So they don’t even try.

Or worse. In an effort to make their “engagement” chart look good, they buy followers. They spam their friends. Trick people into clicking their link. They use social media to sell, sell, sell.

They don’t even try to build relationships. And so they end up worse off than when they started. But at least the chart looks good.

And then there are those that get it. They build real relationships. They have friends that they care about even though they have never met. They help others. And they have no expectations of what they get in return.

Those are the ones that are doing it right. And if you ask them what their social media return on investment is, I bet they have no clue.

This is the Part Where You Respond in the Comments That You Either Loved or Hated This Post

Featured image courtesy of Nomadic Lass licensed via Creative Commons.

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  • http://twitter.com/AlysonReay Justleaveitwithme

    Great article, and I love the message, Marc. It is all about relationships. It isn’t measurable or quantifiable, but it works.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving feedback. (Sorry it too me so long to respond. I have really sucked at responding to comments lately. I hate just leaving the gratuitous “thanks!” comment so I need lots of time to respond to you guys!

  • http://lesdossey.com/ Les Dossey


    I loved the post so go ahead and :)

    Favorite part: How do you create a pretty graph that shows the return on investment for your relationships? You don’t calculate the ROI of your marriage, do you? Because if you did you probably wouldn’t be married anymore. What is the ROI of your parents? Your friends? Co-workers? Neighbors? What is the return on investment of that stranger you are sitting next to on the subway?

    Brilliantly stated.

    Good day!

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Thanks Les! I appreciate it! As further proof, I just asked my wife what the return on investment was for our marriage. I explained to her how much I put in and asked whether I got back as much or more than I put in to this thing. Thinking I was kidding, her response was that she is priceless, so yes. Once she realized I was serious, she got pissed and left the room. I have to go chase after her so I’d better run.

  • http://orraclemedia.com/ Rob Orr

    Outstanding Marc. When it’s done well, people connect, and are more prone to listen, but so many times social media efforts are more about trying to reach out and grab instead of giving and pushing out good stuff -whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest etc. Return means you’re expecting to get something back, and that’s not really what social media is about, is it?

    We all want eyes on our work, but annoying people in the process isn’t going to do the trick.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      It’s not just about me pushing my stuff or even me pushing your stuff to get you to notice me so you will push my stuff. It’s about having a conversation. Just talking to people. When I’m on Twitter, I don’t always want to read your blog. Or your inspirational quote. Sometimes I want to have a human interaction with someone. Yet, do you have any idea how hard it is to find a Tweet that isn’t a link to a blog post or an inspirational quote?

  • hullsean

    Yep, great perspective as always Marc. Though I will say I’ve gained a lot from measuring Analytics, it helps me focus efforts & get a sense of where to spend time. But we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Building relationships is the name of the game.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Absolutely! It just takes a little blind faith. Build relationships with no expectations and a lot of faith and sincerity and your business will improve. Talk to people with dollar signs in your eyes and you will fail at it.

  • Sharon

    The only thing I would add is that the relationships you build ARE the ROI you’re looking for. It’s not directly monetary but it definitely counts.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      It took me so long to respond to this comment because I haven’t been able to get past the fact that I didn’t write that first. I LOOOVE this: “relationships you build ARE the ROI you’re looking for.” BRILLIANT! Thanks for sharing Sharon!

  • http://twitter.com/MattLBrennan Copywriter Matt

    I agree with Sharon. Pretty much no matter your business, no matter what you sell, you need those people who’ll advocate on your behalf. If you’re blogging and using social media the right way, any company can build up a list of loyal advocates. Tweets and posts like the Oreo example you used just create a loose association for when you’re in the market. There’s nothing to really quantify it, but the strong presence that your business builds through social media has value. Great post Marc!

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Thanks Matt! I agree too…I was just telling Sharon how much I loved her quote “relationships you build ARE the ROI you’re looking for.” And there is money to be made in those relationships but it’s not a direct result of it. You build enough quality relationships and your business will improve. The trick is that they need to be real relationships and it’s hard to build a real relationship when you have dollar signs in your eyes.

  • Ann

    Loved: the part where you say return on investment is not immediately measurable. Makes sense. And that it is about relationships. Yes, there are people I know online only who I would totally offer a couch if they needed a place to crash!

    Confused: I keep hearing (here and elsewhere) that brand’s use of social media is all about relationships too. I wonder if the emphasis on relationships in social media is marketers projecting their conception of intimacy and desire for relationships onto their audience. I’m not saying they can’t get a date, I’m saying that maybe they want relationships more than the people to whom they are aiming all this content. I am a total newbie to social media marketing, so I could be really far off base here – but why on earth would anyone want a relationship with a business? Oreo is not welcome to crash on my couch. Maybe the potentially awesome person who runs their Twitter feed, but as themselves, not as Oreo.

    Thank you, and I hope I am not nuts!

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Hi Ann! You aren’t nuts! Well…you may be for all I know, but if you are, it’s not because of this comment. :)

      Oreo doesn’t want to crash on your couch. And if they did, I wouldn’t let them because of the crumbs. They want the relationship for a different reason. They want you to feel connected to their product beyond “they taste good.” A lot of things taste good and most of them live in the cookie aisle. If they have a relationship with you because of your connection on social media, there is a chance that when you do walk down that cookie aisle, not only are they delicious but they also feel like an old friend in which case you are more likely to buy them over another cookie that is just delicious.

      The problem is that it’s not something that can really be quantified. How does Oreo know that you made that decision, let alone that you made it because of your connection on social media? They don’t. So on their end it is blind faith. Building relationships and even measuring “engagement” so they can prove to their boss that they are doing something worthwhile.

      But the second their campaign starts to wreak of return on investment is the second people walk away. We don’t want to be sold.

  • Andrew

    I kinda disagree with you.

    If I am in business, everything I do, every bit of energy/time/resource I expend needs to have a return that represents an eventual net financial gain. Otherwise, why bother?

    You wrote “You don’t calculate the ROI for relationships because there is none.”

    That is where you are very wrong. Try telling it to Harley Davidson. Try telling it to Coca-Cola.

    Pepsi tastes better than Coke. That is a demonstrable fact. But Coke wins. Why?

    Branding is not measurable per se. Branding is how people feel about your business. But branding as value – potentially massive value. People buy Coke because of the way they FEEL about it.

    I own a business whose latent brand value (a.k.a. goodwill) has been estimated at several tens of thousands of dollars. This, quite separate from the physical profits and income that the business generates through its day to day operations. That brand value has been built up through advertising – Google, Facebook (ads, and page) as well as things like articles, giveaways, promotions, on-sites.

    I cut my career teeth on radio advertising. ROI for radio is also very hard to measure, because it is an intangible, emotional medium. But businesses who use radio properly become famous, and through fame comes customers, and through customers comes profit.

    The ROI of social media may be hard to measure if you’re trying to track individual sales from individual posts. But like any branding exercise, if done well, it is far more powerful than simple cause-and-effect advertising.

    You wrote, “Instead, you should continue to connect with people and build relationships without some ulterior motive of “what’s in it for me?””

    But ‘what’s in it for me’ will always be the motive. You can’t avoid it. Everything you do, every decision you make, every action you take, will be calculated to work to your own benefit, directly or indirectly. Whether it’s you as an individual, or you representing a business. Whether it’s to make money, save face, gain status, or to achieve moral pleasure through helping others, there will always be a ‘what’s in it for me’.

    You wrote “there is no such thing as a return on investment for social media.”

    Oh, but there is. There really is.

    End of gripe. :)

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Thanks for the gripe Andrew! I appreciate where you are coming from and respect you for disagreeing and spewing it all here instead of taking it out in some form of road rage on your way home from work.

      I’m curious, what type of business are you in?

      The reason I ask is because I don’t know any business that can say that every bit of energy, time and resource has a return on investment. Especially one that could be calculated.

      So, what is the return on investment for this conversation? I don’t even know what you do, so there is no chance I am going to buy something from you by the end of this response. However, we are building a relationship. Hopefully a positive one even though we disagree. And if you share what your business does, who knows…maybe I need your help or know someone that does. This conversation may turn into business for you! But it didn’t start that way. It started with a conversation, a relationship and then “hey look at that,” new business! Do you calculate it in some big formula?

      1 comment x 250 words / big gripe – 1 Response = $2,000

      Or do you just remain pleasantly surprised and continue to build relationships.

      As for your point regarding ads and contests on Facebook and all of that stuff, that is advertising and yes, there should be a return on investment there. If you are paying for ads and giving stuff away and it’s not fruitful, you need to stop. The only way to tell is to monitor it.

      In this case, I’m talking about social media…not advertising on social media. Big difference.

      And with respect to brands like Harley and Coke, the way we “feel” about these brands has been set looong before social media was ever around. You can’t attribute the fact that people like Coke even though it takes the paint off your car to Facebook or Twitter. They use those sites to stay in touch with those people that already feel a certain way about them. They use it to communicate. To build relationships.

      Did someone buy a motorcycle today because Harley had a cool Tweet? Unlikely. So what is the return? Other than to continue to maintain a two way relationship?

  • http://cirquedumot.com/new-readers/ Susan Silver

    I don’t understand why people go into business and then ignore the will of their customers completely. This is why bad PR happens. When you treat your fans as numbers and dollar signs, when you frak up, they are going to turn on you. But, if they know you, love you, and get that you are people too… chances are things are going to go in your favor. You might even win over some non-believers. I still think that a business primarily needs to focus on a) developing a product that works b)listening too and helping customers c)motivating staff to give a damn about customers they may never meet and d) providing benefits that keep the best talent working for you instead of going some place else . /rant

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Nice rant! Of course you need a great product and all of that other stuff. But people will pay more money for a less superior product if there is a better experience. And if it is an existing client and you are constantly tending to that relationship, you will never lose them. That means going above and beyond. Doing the things you are supposed to do or said you would do is not enough. If you really want to make your clients your best friends, once a quarter call a pizza place near their office and order lunch for them and their staff to be delivered. It’s the best $20 you will ever spend. The next time your competitor calls them to try and steal the business, do you honestly think they would ever leave you?

  • Tim bu Kati

    I like your articles, I’ve read about 4 or 5, but you’ve said the word proverbial in every one.

    • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

      Really? I never realized that. Good observation! I appreciate the proverbial…dang, there I go again!

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