Social ROI

Maybe I'm late to the game, but I've been fact-finding and mulling over many questions related to social media and social networking over the past weeks. I've also followed the truly silly media debates about Twitter recently, and continue to marvel at the way we all continually, consistently miss the point of this whole phenomenon.

I recently watched my friend, collaborator and fellow Habitat Faculty member Mark McLaughlin give a brilliant presentation where he traced the impact of an iconic media brand as it rippled through the landscape of social media and social networks. An article, a photo, an idea would be posted, passed along, commented on, elevated, heated up and served yet again thousands of times. From Flickr to the blogosphere to search boxes, content reverberates and often grows louder in a myriad of compelling and, it seems, highly-measurable ways. It occurred to me - perhaps belatedly - that if a media brand or an article or a photo could have this kind of long-tail afterlife, why not a campaign, a slogan, an ad character, a brand?

In my estimation, we've blown through the first two stages of 'social media marketing' and are on the cusp of stage three:

Stage 1: Social Media as Advertising Environment. While there is certainly value in having an ad presence within a highly engaged social media environment, it's widely accepted by marketers and social media players that there's far more to it than this. Hence Facebook's early decision to outsource banner sales and Twitter's recent dismissal and about-face on whether they will accept "advertising."

Stage 2: Social Media as Conversation Pit. The received wisdom from those who spend serious time looking at Social Media is that marketers need to 'stop controlling the message,' 'be genuine' and 'be ready to listen' to what their customers have to say. Fair enough, but somewhat unsatisfying to marketers looking to really harness the power of what's going on and to social media and social network providers looking to monetize the lightning they've got in the bottle. It's like telling a "Survivor" contestant to wear sunscreen and eat balanced meals: sound advice, but not quite the edge he was looking for.

Stage 3: Social Media as Marketing Richter Scale. Negating neither of the points above - this is an additive discussion without a single conclusive answer - I believe it's time to acknowledge Social Media and Social Networks as the marketing echo chamber that they are. For perhaps the first time ever, marketers can put a campaign or a character or a message out into the public consciousness and then REALLY HEAR AND SEE ITS IMPACT. A brand can throw rocks in the pond and then measure both the quantity and quality of the ripples that follow.

Sure, advertise (subtly). Yes, converse (genuinely). But by all means pour your time, money and resources into this channel to really understand the full ROI of ALL your advertising and marketing activity. For the first time ever, you can.

I'm not bright enough or vested enough to figure this all out, but it seems to me that there's a profession and business line here that's up for grabs between agencies, media measurement firms and other interested parties. It also seems that there's an unrealized source of revenue and ROI for Social Media and Social Network providers: marketers admit they're increasingly lost in today's landscape, and you've got a GPS to sell them. And for the first marketers to truly turn things around and plug their headset into the Social Media and Social Networking grid, the payoff will be enormous.

Jump ball.