I am all for Return On Investment (ROI).

However, defining ROI in any small service business, particularly in marketing, can be incredibly difficult to be even remotely useful. Most businesses don’t bother except when it is easy. But for some reason, when it comes to social media, ROI is mission critical.

Why?

You can place an ad for discounted services, with a coupon, running for a month, and a unique web address, and  a unique phone number, and track that (but honestly how many actually do this?) But how can you track the person who becomes aware of your business through that ad, spots your sign one day while driving by, and then six months later needs and uses your services unrelated to the ad?

What is the ROI of your fax machine?

What is the ROI of customer service?

What is the ROI of a strong brand?

How do you place a value on communicating with a significant proportion of your clients every day?

Most businesses consider word of mouth one of the most important forms of promotion. It is essentially free and it is highly effective. With social media, we have the opportunity to insert our businesses into the “word of mouth” of our customers, and thereby their friends, and their friends friends. Why would you not get involved and take advantage of that?

Facebook for my business probably takes up 15 minutes of my day on average. An email, or even a call by the time I’ve documented it, to an upset client can easily take an hour. Should I not deal with an upset client when I don’t have to because the ROI is lousy? Yes, you can place a value on a client and on retaining that client. You can even track that you do get some clients from Facebook, but you may also get clients because you have an email address or a telephone number. When was the last time that anyone figured out the ROI of their email system? Even when buying a new phone system most businesses to not justify it with ROI, but rather than as the cost of doing business.

Small businesses often look up to companies such as Nike and Apple and see their devoted, and almost rabid, fan bases as evidence of marketing in action. I would argue, however, that companies like Apple and Nike create devoted fan bases is by being approachable and interacting with their clients – Apple in particular. I’m not the greatest Steve Jobs fan, but there are lots of examples of Steve taking the time to reply to ordinary consumers and being very interested in what they had to say. HP, Dell, et al. for a number of years, sold dramatically more computers than Apple, but it was Apple who held Mac World every year. Nike became cool because they did not go after deals, they went after people who actually used their shoes – athletes. They engaged their most high profile target market.

Of course, there is a lot of other marketing involved, but remember Apple’s most famous ad only ran once in most markets. Apple, and Nike for that matter, opened their own stores that operate on a quite a different model from other retail outlets. There is some argument that this was to help control the customer experience, but I also feel it was to be able to respond, and engage, with customers. Like all companies, they do not always get it right, but I do think that it is the willingness to attempt true engagement, and a real concern for the customer experience, that breeds fierce loyalty.

Social media is not a strategy – engagement, however, is.

So how to do social media and get some results and some traction?

To me, a major issue for small businesses is when they are on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, YouTube, and are doing all of them badly. Focus on one, and only one, and do it well. Then you can move on to another one.

Create things,or provide a service, using social media that other people will value.

Share other people’s content sparingly.

Self promotion has to have value, or at least not look like self promotion.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your fan base or ask them to share.

Drive fans to your website, or blog, from places like Facebook or YouTube not the other way round.

Pick your social media sites carefully. In my opinion, YouTube, for example, is very useful and can expose you to an enormous audiences, but the attention span is fleeting and the sense of community is almost non-existent. Embed videos in your site or page. Facebook works for my business and my previous business. Twitter does not. However, Twitter will almost certainly work for my new business, and it works for me personally. This has a lot to do with the small towns versus large cities and the  nature of my business – it may well be different for yours. Google+ has some personal value, and some SEO benefits, but has little real world value at this point in time in my opinion. But it does look very pretty!

Numbers of likes or followers are pretty irrelevant. It is the level of engagement that counts. I’d much rather have two hundred relevant, and engaged, fans or followers than 6,000 just making up the numbers. As someone much smarter than me once said: “If you believe business is built on relationships, make building them your business.”

And finally, don’t cross post, post from one social network to another, unless you really know what you are doing.

And even then just don’t do it.

Please.

I beg of you.

I see people I respect and who should really know better, cross posting and it is counterproductive. Content for Facebook does not translate well to Twitter because of the character limit. Twitter’s special characters are not understood by most Facebook users.

There are social networks where cross posting seems to work pretty well, but again, it is a black art, and if you are questioning the ROI of any social network, cross posting from a different network is not any kind of an investment.

To sum up this long, and sprawling post, the ROI of social media is the ROI of engagement. If talking to existing and new customers is not for you then I wish you well.

That just means more customers for the rest of us.

Many thanks to my friends and colleagues on the Marking in Veterinary Medicine LinkedIn group for the conversation that this post was cannibalized from. Also many thanks to Ali Burden-Blake (@inkspotsocial) for her excellent blog post: “Stop! Why using social media won’t work for your veterinary practice.” which inspired the conversation in the first place.

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