Marketers try desperately to quantify social media and its effect on the bottom line. What does it cost? What does it bring in?

No shortage of people will tell you their answers — in blog posts, books, seminars, podcasts, YouTube videos and consultancies.

But what no one is exactly saying is… should you?

How can you quantify a relationship? Can you quantify a tool that’s constantly on? What’s the ROI of having a laptop? What’s the ROI of electric light? What’s the ROI of wearing pants? What’s the ROI of your mom?

Five years ago, marketers were still skeptical of social media’s value. Today, they see it and are desperate to articulate and demonstrate it to leadership — but can’t quite figure out how.

The truth is, there’s a pervasive lack of meaning in social media ROI. Data can quantify what social media does, but it’s the nature of the beast to struggle with putting a number on relationships.

Truly calculating social media ROI is a delicate science of finding the right combination of soft and hard measurements.

  • Soft measurements can include impressions, sentiment, feeling, emotion, credibility and affinity.
  • Hard measurements can include CRM acquisitions; database growth; or completion of a specific call-to-action, such as using a doctor-locator tool.

Would it be enough to know how many “friends” you had if none of them talked to you or how many “customers” looked into your shop window if none of them purchased anything? Of course not. Similarly, you can’t rely on base measurements like “likes;” you must also measure trackable actions (source).

But as many have said, including social media maven Gary Vaynerchuk (source), what the “right” measurements are depends. As such, it can be hard to look at ROI comparisons from one brand or program to another, let alone among disease states or between companies. It’s possible to use social data to tell a useful story about how the investment of time and money pays off for a brand in the long run. It’s harder to compare stories.

Even with good measurements telling an informative story, though, it’s difficult to draw cause-and-effect conclusions. As social media app Buffer described it on their blog, it’s “the problem of thinking that content has an instantaneous impact on conversion” (source). The next step is to get there — to tie both measurements to prescription-level data and understand what happens in the real world. Are people who interact with a brand’s social presence more likely to be prescribed that brand?

Customer service through social media is another story. While common in other industries, it’s not yet popular for pharma to address professional or patient inquiries using social media. There are a slew of concerns around adverse-event reporting and HIPAA privacy, but these don’t necessarily mean it’s impossible.

Overall, it’s important to realize that social media ROI is an evolving science, as well as a delicate one. Rather than focusing on a specific tool, measurement or process, we must keep in mind our main goal — figuring out how to best to use these platforms to build connections. Social’s job is to connect the people behind the brand with the people who could use the brand and help them improve their lives.