PR News Q&A: Solving the Social Media ROI Conundrum

Heidi Sullivan

As VP of media research, North America for Cision, Heidi Sullivan knows the importance of establishing key metrics that prove PR’s effectiveness. The ability, says Sullivan, to link those metrics to business goals will go a long way in establishing a strong link to the C-suite. In this Q&A, Sullivan talks of the challenges, tools and best practices in measuring social media ROI. 

PR News: Most PR pros we talk to are baffled in measuring ROI from social media efforts. What makes this process so difficult?

Heidi Sullivan: From my perspective, there are three major reasons why PR pros struggle with this:

  1. Measuring influence over audience. Many times, when we are trying to measure our success in social media, we are attempting to measure our influence in a particular community. That's where the difficult part comes in; I think Shonali Burke of Waxing UnLyrical says it best: "Influence, like everything else, is contextual." Just as with traditional media measurement, the most eyeballs don't always equate to the most qualified eyeballs on your content. While an influencer in your space may not always have the highest Klout score or the most Facebook friends, they still have trusted relationships with the end-users we are trying to target. Quantifying that influence makes measurement really difficult.

  2. Measuring across multiple outposts. Is a Facebook friend worth the same as a Twitter follower? How do those compare to blog comments or Diggs? Different social sites have varying methods of measurement and bringing those all under one roof is as difficult as measuring a mention on a radio show against a blurb in a local daily against a feature in a national trade magazine.

  3. Measuring without business goals. A frequent pitfall of PR pros getting started in social media engagement is diving in without specific, measurable business objectives and goals. Are you launching your blog to establish your brand as a thought leader? Are you responding to mentions on Twitter to drive sales? Maybe you are enhancing your Facebook page to build brand awareness. Without specific business objectives, it is extremely difficult to measure your success.

PR News: What are the first couple of steps PR pros can take in tying social media metrics to outcomes?

Sullivan: As I mentioned above, the first step is establishing business objectives and methods of measurement prior to engagement. Frequently, measurement becomes a lot easier once your goals are established. Say that you want to raise brand awareness on Twitter: Your measurement can be as simple as monitoring the number of brand mentions over time, or, if you are feeling ambitious, adding sentiment measurement to those mentions as well.  If your goal is to increase sales leads, you can create a special landing page for Twitter, Facebook and blogs so you know how much traffic you are driving. There is usually a method for measurement for just about any business objective if you start with effective planning and research.

PR News: What should be taken under consideration when choosing social media measurement tools?

The questions to ask about a social media measurement tool of course depend on the goals of each organization, but a good place to start is by understanding the breadth and depth of content and analysis available. The number of blogs and sites being tracked by a particular service matters, but so does the number of posts and articles it searches each day. Are the major social sites included? How flexibly does the tool handle long, complex keyword strings? Is there metadata available to help you make sense of it, such as engagement metrics like counts of trackbacks and comments? What kinds of charting and visualization are available? Are collaborative workflow tools built in to help you coordinate responses across a team? Are you able to identify social content within a particular geography? Is there additional information available about the top influencers whose content is being monitored? The goals of your campaign should drive the way you prioritize the importance of each of these features and services when shopping for a measurement tool.

PR News: Another concern in all this is resources--what can a smaller organization on a limited budget do to show some ROI to the boss?

Social media involvement is, in a lot of ways and on most platforms, free. However, time investment is significant and planning is the key to success. For smaller organizations on limited budgets, I recommend choosing a specific goal and a specific platform to get started. Just because "everyone" is on Twitter and Facebook doesn't necessarily mean that you need to be on Twitter and Facebook. Find the initiatives that will get you the most bang for your buck. A great way to start is to identify 10 influential people in your sphere and work on building relationships with them.

PR News: What PR metrics does the C-suite want to see?

We toss around the term "ROI" like candy these days, but the C-suite wants to see exactly that: a return on their investment. The best way to keep your bosses happy is to establish beforehand exactly the return you will be showing: an increased following, improved sentiment in the social media space, greater customer engagement, a bump in sales, the list goes on and on. If you know what your goal is, the metrics that you use to measure will become immediately clear.