The Social-Media ROI Conundrum

Why Don't Digital Agencies Forsake Payment in Cash, Too?

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
What if you could run your marketing department on the same financial models they use at Facebook or Twitter?

You'd have an endless budget to do cool things and a visionary mandate from your delighted investors to go forth and create. Freed from the constraints of having to make money, you could simply spend it on entertaining your customers, their friends and, oh, what the hell, total strangers. You could scoff at the idea of profits and use dazzling made-up words like "monetization" that would get you on the cover of this publication and then appear in your best-seller book. Your only interest would be to get awareness of how aware you are.

Wait a minute -- isn't that what digital agencies and social gurus are telling you to do with your brand, anyway? They have very serious expressions on their faces when they talk about the importance of ROI, but a majority of them understand marketing about as well as Lysenko knew how to grow crops. To accept their deliverables you must reject the basics of math and the causality of physics: Because your brand's exposure could happen while the Sun rises and sets, your social campaign could take credit for keeping the Earth rotating on its axis. There's just got to be money in that, doesn't there?

Social is as social does.

Before you jump to the bottom of this essay so you can tell me that I'm an ingrate Luddite, I know things aren't this extreme. Not by a long shot. But there is a general disconnect when the purveyors of "free" charge brands for the privilege of giving stuff away, isn't there? The cards are stacked against CMOs, because you're supposed to figure out how to sell stuff to consumers while working with vendors whose primary expertise is in selling stuff to you. Here's a simple question to illustrate the problem: Why don't promoters of conversational media forsake payment in tangible currencies and instead agree to share in the happy futurity of social karma that your brand is supposed to value more? If your return can't be measured in dollars, why should theirs? Let everybody get paid in acronyms of new mediaspeak!

It isn't going to happen, nor is it likely or fair to expect a particular social campaign to necessarily pay for itself (unless it distributes coupons, which makes it a direct-marketing exercise anyway). But it also doesn't make sense to import wholly the funny metrics used by online services and technology platforms that have no interest in making a cash profit. This is why many CMOs are still secretly leery of the social phenomenon, as sometimes it can feel like a pyramid scheme or cult. Telling them that they "just have to do it" is scarily reminiscent of a pitch for a self-improvement seminar.

This paradigm-shifting business is tough, and there's a lot going on: Brands are absolutely moving away from making empty promises of a better life to strangers to forging relationships based on substance and collaboration. It's not the first time the marketing game has changed, though. The marketing racket got blown up and then turned inside out in the middle of the 20th century, back when folks like Ed Bernays figured out how brands could exploit the human subconscious, Daniel Yankelovich discovered how to track those desires across consumer groups, David Ogilvy translated the aspirations of brands into advertising media, and Arthur Nielsen built tools to measure consumers' responses to it.

There weren't a lot of CMOs back then, but if there had been, I'm sure their heads would have been spinning. The only saving grace was that no matter how radically those pioneers were hoping to change marketing, they were united in a common definition of ultimate purpose: sales. Not as a word or idea, but as the objectively measurable lodestone for their every effort. Even the wackiest creative idea or stunt needed to answer the distinctly noncreative question:, "And it will help sales how?"

Again, more generalizing from yours truly, but you get the idea. Branding wasn't engagement, listening, conversation, content, interaction or entertainment. It was how brands got to selling stuff. Today's new-media advocates are somewhat like their radical forbearers. No matter what they call it, they're in the business of selling stuff to you. For real money. Only lately have more CMOs woken up to the fact that what they're buying is somewhat less real.

So maybe the answer is to ditch all the up-is-the-new-down blather and just do like they do?

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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