Why Social Media ROI Can’t Be Measured – And Why That’s OK

“There are things we know that we know. There are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.” When I read this (slightly paraphrased) quote from Donald Rumsfeld back when it was first said in 2002, it sounded like total […]

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There are things we know that we know. There are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.”

When I read this (slightly paraphrased) quote from Donald Rumsfeld back when it was first said in 2002, it sounded like total political gobbledygook.

But I thought of it recently in a new context: social media ROI. And suddenly, it makes perfect sense.

Because yes, there are plenty of things we can do to get close to quantifying our returns from social media – campaign variables, landing pages and forms, multi-channel funnels – but we’ll never be able to quantify every lead, every brand-awareness lightbulb moment, everything social does for us.

There are still things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t even know we’re missing in terms of social media measurement.

For proof, look no further than The Atlantic, which shook the social media realm recently with its expose of “dark social” –  the idea that the channels we fret over measuring like Facebook and Twitter represent only a small fraction of the social activity that’s really going on.

The article shares evidence that reveals that the vast majority of sharing is still done through channels like email and IM that are nearly impossible to measure (and thus, dark).

It’s just one sign of a larger social media issue: when it comes to ROI, we’re just not there yet. Honestly, we may never be. And that’s OK.


“Dark social” eclipses everything we thought we knew about social media ROI. So now what?

What’s The True Value Of Social Media?

Everyone else can keep fretting, but I’ve gotten to a zen place when it comes to social media ROI. For me, social media is a first impression. A blind date. A first dance.

It’s a shot to get on someone’s radar and let that person know you’re cool, smart, funny, interesting and valuable to have around. And if you keep being all those things, eventually they’ll want to get to know you better. Or even tell their friends about you.

That’s the value of social media – the potential to create a new relationship where there wasn’t one before. And then the ability to repeat that process as many times as you have friends and fans.

Will this warm and fuzzy analogy get you to the bottom line number we’re all looking for? No; but, that doesn’t decrease the value a brand gets from using social media to put its best foot forward and open the door to new relationships.

Knowing What We Can Know

But, if social media ROI can’t be measured, how should social media practitioners evaluate their performance?

By knowing what we know, and measuring what we can measure. Even if it’s only the tip of the iceberg.


We want to know: do more people know about you than before?

How we know it: measure brand mentions, mentions of your brand’s unique value proposition, number of positive reviews and share of voice [brand mentions ÷ total industry mentions (your brand + competitor A + competitor B…)] per reporting period.


We want to know: are more people hearing your message than before?

How we know it: measure follower/fan growth per reporting period, enlist a tool that measures Twitter reach, use in-app tools like Facebook Insights and LinkedIn analytics to report on reach/impressions per post.


We want to know: are your posts generating traffic?

How we know it: if you’re truly being cool, smart, funny, interesting and valuable in all your social media interactions, then you’re not simply sharing all your content day after day. But when you do link to your own stuff, measure the resulting traffic via Google Analytics. Then drill down to leads generated or nurtured through social media, defining lead in a way that makes sense for your sales process.


We want to know: are people reacting to what you’re putting out there?

How we know it: measure click-through rate per post, responses/comments per post, shares/retweets/favorites/downloads per post, number of brand advocates (supply your own definition of these) developed per reporting period.


We want to know: what are people telling you about your brand, products or services that you need to hear?

How we know it: measure volume of positive and negative sentiment mentions, questions answered, product suggestions fielded and product suggestions implemented per reporting period.

These metrics don’t show the full picture of how social media affects a brand’s bottom line — maybe nothing can right now. But consider:

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Know who said that? No one does! Some things just aren’t knowable. And that’s OK.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Courtney Seiter
Courtney Seiter is a content crafter at Buffer. She has been an editor and writer at publications including Allure, Time Out New York, Playboy and The Tennessean. She speaks frequently on social media marketing and community management topics.

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