August 11, 2013

Social ROI: Dream or Reality

by Renegade

DrewCutThrulargeMy favorite part of being a social media professional is that it requires me to be social in the old-fashioned meaning of the word and in the process I get to meet and build relationships with really smart, interesting and talented people.  One of these individuals is Lakshmanan (Lux) Narayan the CEO of Unmetric, with whom I had the pleasure of meeting at our first “executive salon” called Social ROI: Dream or Reality.  Lux was kind enough to agree to be interviewed on the topic that hopefully will not end up being my Waterloo. I think you will find what Lux has to say about benchmarks, proxies and the elusive pursuit of direct ROI metrics quite enlightening.

Drew: What are the basic benchmarks, your company Unmetric proposes to big marketers to measure effectiveness of their social media activities?
The most fundamental measure, quite simply, is resonance. In an era where brands are publishers and markets are truly conversations (as the Cluetrain Manifesto proclaimed 14 years ago), every brand’s efforts on social media is really to resonate with the expectation of its existing and prospective customer base.

Various secondary metrics serve to qualify resonance – depending on the social network and the lens of purpose we’re looking through. For example, on Facebook, this could be qualified as resonance to a piece of micro-content a brand publishes on its Facebook page. In this case, engagement measured as a weighted function of likes, comments and shares would probably be the best surrogate for resonance.

In the Twitter ecosystem, and (say) through a customer service lens, this could be quantified as average reply time – towards resolving a customer question, or the number of times a brand needs to apologize. At Unmetric, we have a gamut of metrics for each platform – the metrics are idiosyncratic to the platform, and to the common marketing / customer service objectives it can address.

Drew: What sorts of brands are most likely to understand the nuances of social media and least likely to associate it with ROI?
I think brick and mortar and consumer brands that manage large mass media budgets would most likely ‘get it’ sooner than the rest. The reason is quite simple, really. These brands are used to a digital world where an online/mobile/digital sales transaction is rarely the final objective, simply because purchase for these brands is often in a retail store – quite distanced from the (possible) online experience that catalyzed it.

These brands have evolved from a world where attributing results to spends have always been a challenge (the classic “I know half my budget is working, but don’t know which half” comes to mind). Consumer brands are, with their mass media backgrounds, used to living with intermediate and indicative non dollar linked parameters being an objective.

For example, a TV campaign might have a stated objective of driving up unaided advertising awareness, and consequently, brand awareness and preference by a few points. Behind this objective is obviously some insight into a correlation model between awareness, preference and sales. To state the corollary – I’d expect brands that typically get or can aspire for an online transaction expect such transactions to be woven into an ROI model. These are brands that thrived in a Google Adwords defined transactional advertising world where dollar inputs are expected to translate into dollar (sales) outputs. E-commerce, services like airlines, travel and banking – all try and aspire for ROI rationale.

Drew: How would you describe your journey into the world of social and digital media metrics? 
I think it was an interesting mix of scratching ones itch, serendipity, and an evolution of sorts. I guess that begs for elaboration…

In the company I previously co-founded, a data backup software firm called Vembu, I was personally driving our sales and marketing initiatives. Like every other company at the time, we set up a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, and other social media outposts. And then…silence!

We ran out of things to say; after all, data backups were the tech equivalent of a root canal treatment, and how engaging can that be. I found myself poring through the social media efforts of other firms, most notably utilitarian technology product companies, to get a better sense of how they achieved resonance with their community. That experience was the initial seed for what became EyesAndFeet, a social media platform for small and local businesses. A year and some heartaches and a few serendipitous meetings later, we re-architected the platform to move from a small business focus to a focus on large businesses and brands. Those were the initial days of Unmetric.

On a related vein, I spend the better part of the 90s working at various media agencies in the Interpublic group. At the time my team would regularly publish Share of Voice / Spend competitive intelligence reports and try and garner insights from competitive activity on mass media. By the turn of the century, we were doing the same thing with brands’ websites as well. I see Unmetric’s role as akin to that – in social media, and therefore an evolution of sorts.

Drew: What is Unmetric’s greatest strength when providing social media insights to marketers?
That’s exactly it: insights! There is so much of data out there that it is quite easy to miss the forest for the trees. Unmetric’s role is in ferreting out those data nuggets that would otherwise have escaped a team’s attention – those needles in the haystack.

Besides this intelligent outlier analysis and insight mining, we also pride ourselves on two unique things that we do: one is in the area of campaign tracking whereby we recognize the multi-platform social media campaign as being the evolution of the classic multi-media mass media campaign, and try and capture this multi-platform dimension of competitive activity. The other very unique thing about us is the way we offer content intelligence – in a way that allows brands to hone their own content strategies and publishing calendars.

Drew: How easy or difficult is measuring “Social Media ROI” in today’s competitive landscape where every brand is social?
Crazily enough, quantifying ROI typically becomes less of a demand in a crowded and competitive scenario. Television advertising is a great example of this…

Most brands in crowded sectors are plugging in far more spots and spending a lot more than ROI and optimization would dictate. The reason is simple: competitive pressure. Brands are understandably uncomfortable with simply achieving their reach and effective frequency objectives in a scenario where a competitor is hugely out-shouting them. As a consequence, the conversation shifts from ROI to Share of Voice and attention, and benchmarking ones activity levels and efficacy against a brand’s peers. Exactly the same thing will happen, and is, in some ways, happening in social media.