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As I prepare to host tomorrow’s Social Media Monitoring, Measurement & ROI Forum in Sydney, I’ve been fortunate enough to pick the brains of 18 leading practitioners on how they feel the industry is travelling. Almost unanimously, the one recurring theme that struck me most is the inability of social media professionals to consistently demonstrate and communicate their value, and that of social media strategy, to the C-suite.

Measurement and return on investment have always been areas of debate when it comes to social media: some tout the credentials of transparent measurement in the digital world, while others question the tangible business impact of social media initiatives and campaigns. And this divide in opinions could not be more obvious than when comparing perceptions of Australian social media professionals and business leaders around the country. One group believes social media channels are the future and an essential area of investment. The other group is already questioning existing investments, let alone future opportunities.

For an aspect of business that has promised so much, ‘social media’ appears to have delivered very little in the context of ongoing performance improvement. ‘Social media’ is experiencing an identity crisis among business leaders.

Why?

The answer, I believe, lies in the term itself and, frankly, the impossible task of meeting Australian leadership expectations with a suite of channels alone.

Focus on social capabilities, not social media channels

I often talk about the role of social capabilities and their value over social media (and so will save you the soapbox session…further thinking on the value of social capabilities can be found here), but at its core, there is an inherent problem with a focus on social media. Let me use an extreme analogy to demonstrate my point.

Imagine, for a moment, your organisation is facing a challenge. New players have entered the market and you’re losing market share. You can review and refine existing processes to increase margins, but efficiencies will only deliver so much value before you need to look at new opportunities. You scan the market and competitor activity to learn how others are managing the same threat. How and where are they finding new product ideas, customer prospects or revenue streams? And there you find it – the common trend and, surely, the answer: radio. They are all on the radio.

Now, there’s no point fleshing out the chaos that ensues as internal teams all clamber to buy radio spots, create content, build relationships, make deals, and work out how to capture all this interest via other channels that this new investment in radio will surely generate. Hopefully my point is clear. Such an approach is terribly reductionist and misguided.

Radio is a channel.

Social media are channels.

You might have a Marketing, Sales or even Channel Strategy to help solve that business challenge, but you wouldn’t have a ‘Radio Strategy’. So why do many still pursue ‘Social Media Strategy’?

Social media strategy creates a disconnect with business leaders

Of course, it is not the channel that delivers value – it is the strategy behind the channel. And the building blocks that lead to the strategy being developed: audience evidence and insight, market research, gap analysis, creative process, skilled personnel.

If your organisation has a strategic need, and there is evidence the corresponding customer or prospect need would be best served via social media initiatives (or radio, or any other channel, for that matter) then it makes sense to utilise that channel in implementation. But the initial goals, strategy and ultimate measurement should all align with the business, not the channel.

And this is exactly the point where those perception and senior credibility challenges creep in. Unless social media practitioners can align with business goals, use business language or adopt business metrics, everything they do will be questioned.

Pursue business strategy, language and measurement

Start with organisational needs, not channel selection

So let’s stop calling it ‘social media strategy’. All this does is encourage teams to create and manage channels, rather than contribute to organisational strategy and organisational goals. All this does is create a different set of rules where teams can get away with ‘We’re just trialling things’ or ‘We just need to get setup properly, and then we’ll focus on delivering outcomes.’

To be taken seriously, the focus must shift away from the channels used to the ways in which social data (e.g. customer conversations), social technologies (e.g. listening or service capabilities) and social business processes (e.g. customer collaboration) can improve the way an organisation reaches its targets. Sooner, more effectively, more efficiently. Overarching goals and strategy will already be set – the role of social is to drive the organisation towards these goals, not to follow a strategy that builds new channels.

Communication begins at the top

I’m yet to read an organisation strategy or annual report that uses the words ‘amplify’, ‘tweet’ or ‘increase likes’. Actually, one mentioned Facebook likes, but I hope that was a one off… Yet it is a reality these words are all-too-common among social media practitioners and materials.

Instead, these business resources focus on outcomes of importance to key stakeholder groups – customers, employees, the executive, shareholders. They very rarely focus on the specific execution methods (e.g. channels) to reach these outcomes, as these details are only relevant to those executing.

Imagine how different an executive conversation around ‘social’ would be if focused on harnessing real-time customer feedback and intelligence, or the ability to develop a more responsive service capability to improve customer experience?

Adopt business language. Assume business relevance.

Social media metrics mean nothing

I know this sounds fatalist, but it’s true. Senior execs do not care about superficial metrics. Particularly when you cannot draw causation or even correlation between an increase in community size or engagement levels and business performance. And nor should they.

Focus on those metrics that already mean something to the business. Again, this all starts with organisation strategy – learn what matters and identify how you can contribute to supporting those outcomes.

As one industry expert explained during our conversation, this scenario was already playing out within an organisation she was advising. The social media team had been given a remit for social media, set a social media strategy, and executed social media activities. But when it came to measurement of that strategy, their focus was (naturally) on social media metrics. They thought they were doing a great job. Senior leaders were already questioning their return on investment.

I’m particularly interested to hear how organisations like the Australian Government’s Department of Human Services and Bank of Queensland detail how they have tackled the strategy – language – measurement dynamic and created a culture of business-centred social during tomorrow’s conference. If complex, risk-averse organisations like these can find and demonstrate value, anyone can.

What this means for your social media investments

Just to be 100% clear – there is nothing wrong with campaign strategy focused on social media channels (assuming you already have existing data or evidence showing the link between your goal, audience behaviour and channel fit), and there is nothing wrong with channel strategy highlighting when, how and for what purpose social media channels should be used. I’d encourage both these things.

But issues arise when strategic focus and investment is placed on channels like Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn. This reduces the value of ‘social’ to channels with a broadcast or marketing intent, preventing your organisation from realising broader, higher-value opportunities across intelligence, service, sales, production and HR.

If your organisation wants to deliver business outcomes with social initiatives, start by developing a strategy that demonstrates how the introduction of social capabilities will improve existing key business metrics. If you can solve strategic problems and improve business performance from the work you do, that is what executives will value – the outcome achieved, not the channel chosen. As, ultimately, with the right strategy, the channels choose themselves.

If you’re keen to keep an eye on all the conference action and key speaker insights, follow me on Twitter (@rogerchristie) or check out the event hashtag – #smdata.

Author: Roger Christie

Roger Christie is Founder and Managing Director of Propel. He understands the importance and value of a customer-centric approach to business, and has worked with a range of public and private sector organisations to help them leverage data, technology and operational change to deliver practical business solutions. Over the past decade, Roger has advised boards and executive teams across government departments and ASX top ten corporations, and understands the challenges facing organisations looking to excel and remain viable in an increasingly competitive, discerning marketplace. You can connect with Roger on LinkedIn and Twitter, and follow his thoughts on Medium.

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