Big ideas don't have ROI

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American Express' OPEN Forum for small-business owners routinely attracts more than 1 million unique visitors a month. The network has 200 featured contributors, mobile apps and a new social media tracking and management service for members. All for free. At Dell Computer, 3,000 people have been certified to use social media on behalf of the company. Dell has hired professional trainers; published a four-color, how-to manual; and flown speakers in from around the country to share their wisdom. Cisco Systems has recently taken advantage of massive layoffs of journalists to hire former BusinessWeek and Wall Street Journal writers to tackle weighty topics, such as the future of the Internet and the impact of social media on education, in a revamped newsroom called the Network. A similar initiative at Intel Corp., called the Free Press, reads like a technology trade magazine. Content like that doesn't come cheap. All these programs have one thing in common: There's no clear return on investment (ROI). “We're doing this because we think it's what's right for the small-business community,” said Scott Roen, an AmEx OPEN VP. “The business philosophy around social media is to embed it across the company to be a better business,” said Richard Binhammer, who coordinates social media programs at Dell. Contrast that thinking with the micro-management that confronts many marketers as they try to get their own social programs off the ground. While they crunch Excel formulas trying to make their case, forward-thinking companies move ahead with big ideas. And big ideas don't have ROI. These companies set audacious goals in the belief that market-changing ideas are more likely to come from the back of an envelope than the bottom line of a spreadsheet. But they also measure like crazy at the back end. For example, Walt Disney Co. knows that the average person who takes a theme park vaca-tion will spend $62,000 with Disney over his or her lifetime. But the company doesn't use this insight to justify the brand of shampoo in guest rooms. It's a benchmark for making smart decisions at a high level. Most CEOs think of themselves as big-idea people, but they're understandably sensitive to the countervailing forces of nervous directors. If you let your ideas become pawns in the ROI chess game, you will always play defense. I'm not saying returns aren't important, but ROI can be a convenient excuse to justify inaction and cynicism. The next time you're pressed for ROI, turn the conversation toward big ideas. Cite the AmEx OPEN Forum example and suggest that the important question isn't whether the bet will pay off, but whether it's the right thing to do.
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