Do you measure the return on your social media investment?

It seems blasphemous not to, yet that’s exactly the direction we’re experimenting with at Buffer.

We’ve recently shifted our focus toward email list building along with continued traffic growth. These metrics are common enough; it’s what we’ve stopped measuring in lieu of email that is most unique and notable.

We no longer focus on social media ROI. It’s strange but true. We’re a social media blog that does not emphasize social media ROI in our stats and strategy. What gives? Let’s take a closer look.

What is social media ROI? A complicated definition

Defining social media ROI can be a bit of a thorny problem.

Tools and services have come along to help shed light on the numbers behind one’s social impact. Yet, choosing which numbers are best—engagement, clicks, conversions, etc.—is still highly debatable and quite unique to the individual.

There’s also the higher-level view of entering social media ROI from the right perspective. Gary Vaynerchuk has some interesting ideas on this.He challenges the traditional, linear view of ROI as a universal benchmark by pointing out that ROI is incredibly dependent on the user.

Social Media ROI gif

His full slide deck includes a handful of examples of the ways that ROI for most anything will vary based on the “mechanic.” For instance,

What is the ROI of the keyboard in my closet? Rather zilch for me. Millions of dollars for someone like Herbie Hancock.

What is the ROI of baking cupcakes? A few smiles for me. A few dollars for a bakery.

There are so many factors that go into ROI, as Vaynerchuck argues, that so often the answer for “What’s the ROI of X, Y, and Z” resorts to “it depends.”

As you can imagine, it’s hard to measure “it depends.”

How we think of social media ROI at Buffer

Before we get into this post too deep, let me define what I mean when I’m talking about social media ROI.

1. We have stopped focusing on conversions as a key metric for the blog. (More on this below.)

2. Our blog content is a key component to our social media strategy. Ninety percent of our social media updates are based on content we’ve written on the blog.

3. Therefore, the ROI for our social media updates can be defined as conversions from the blog. These conversions are the Return on the Investment of sharing content. Since conversions are no longer our number one focus, social media ROI takes a back seat.

Through this rethinking of ROI and metrics, we’ve taken a bit of a new view of social media from a slightly different perspective. Social media, first and foremost, is branding—and it is increasingly difficult to measure branding as a direct, one-to-one conversion. In many ways, you can no longer expect direct ROI from content marketing or branding. Tom Tunguz created an interesting graphic that shows how conversions and effectiveness change the further you get away from direct marketing and into content and branding.

Tom Tunguz marketing horizons


The simplest, shortest conversions happen with direct response. As you get deeper into content and branding, the conversion formulas change. They get more complicated.

We’re a team of 25—and a content team of two—so we find the scale of time, effectiveness, and conversion (as illustrated in the chart) to be a bit out of sync with our resources. Larger companies and agencies might be able to track this volume, but for us—and maybe for you—we’ve chosen to go a different route.

What makes measuring ROI for content so hard? Here’s our theory.

Where conversions and content diverge

It would seem that the most straightforward way to focus on social media ROI is to seek conversions. That is the mindset I took when I first started at Buffer and the one that I imagine most content creators and marketers ascribe to. Conversions are in our DNA, you might say.

Turns out, I wasn’t seeing the complete picture.

While conversions are tantamount to growth and revenue, the blog might not be the best place to measure them. There are other points along the journey from curious to customer that are better measured in terms of direct ROI. If you imagine this journey as a funnel, the blog is near the top, trying to collect as many eyeballs and as much interest as possible. Conversions tend to happen much later on in the process, further down the funnel, like in this example from Moz.



This was certainly my experience when I converted at Buffer. Here’s how it went:

  1. I found the Buffer blog via Facebook when someone shared Leo’s article about The Origin of the 8-Hour Work Day. It was a neat story, so I bookmarked the blog, thinking I’d come back later.
  2. I noticed Leo’s name at a couple other places online where he had guest blogged. Noticing this didn’t send me scurrying back to the Buffer blog; it just reinforced that Leo was an okay guy.
  3. Feedly mentioned that it had an integration with Buffer. Cool. I didn’t have a need for social media scheduling at the time, so I browsed Buffer’s other add-ons, grabbed a few ideas, and left.
  4. A couple weeks later, I was cleaning out my bookmarks and I found the Buffer blog bookmark. I stopped by for a visit and found a handful of more stories that sounded interesting to read. I loved them all.
  5. Around this time, I started a new side project and wanted to promote it a bit on social media. I thought automation would be an ideal way to go. I went to IFTTT to see what was available, and I saw they had a Buffer integration. A lightbulb went off.
  6. I googled “Buffer app.”
  7. I clicked on the result for the Buffer landing page, I liked its clean design and simple CTA, and I signed up on the spot.

In summary, my path to conversion went Facebook > Blog > Guest Posts > Feedly > Bookmarks > Blog > IFTTT > Google > Buffer landing page > Conversion!

My ROI Journey

Was the blog to credit for my joining Buffer? You bet. Do you think my conversion was reflected in the blog stats? Eh, probably not.

Rand Fishkin of Moz explained this conversion conundrum in detail with his slide deck “Why Content Marketing Fails.” He lists five reasons why content marketing might fail, beginning right off the bat with the problem of thinking that content has an instantaneous impact on conversion.

In reality, the process, according to Rand, is more like this:

how content marketing works

Kind of complicates measurement of ROI, wouldn’t you say? That’s the conclusion we came to on the Buffer blog. While it’s not impossible to track ROI and conversions through this multistep flow (some incredibly smart people and cool tools have figured it out), we found that our social media efforts to drive visitors to our content can be measured in other ways (see below). ROI is a tough nut to crack.

When it’s good to measure social media ROI

Last week, Unbounce published an article titled “Why Every Marketer Should Care About Conversion,” and seeing that headline made me stop in my tracks. I’m a marketer. Why don’t I care about conversion?

The answer is that I do care about conversions and ROI. It’s just that my conversions look a bit different than what most folks expect. In the Unbounce article, Three Deep Marketing’s Angie Schottmuller had this great quote:

“Marketing is a utility to facilitate action. Conversion is simply the completion of a presented action. Whether it’s buy now, call today, share socially or watch the video, all marketing content needs a purposeful call to action. If you’re not helping the user get to the next step in their decision-making process, what’s the point?

No marketing channels are exempt from being useful or actionable. Online or offline, from emails to print ads, a relevant, value-added call to action should always be included and optimized.”

By this definition, we are measuring conversions at the Buffer blog. We’re measuring how visitors convert to email subscribers.

I think it’s also good to point out that there are other ways of looking at social media ROI beyond an impact to the blog. Your social strategy might not be as content-heavy as ours. You may be promoting products or events, and these would fit a more traditional measure ROI and conversions. It might be best to track ROI when you’re sharing some of the following:

  • Landing pages
  • Event registration
  • New product announcements
  • Direct CTAs (like Twitter cards, for instance)

Ideas on what you might measure instead

At the Buffer blog, we’ve chosen to measure email signups as our key metric. Email signups give us an awesome opportunity to communicate directly with those who ask to hear from us. It’s quite the privilege! (While we’re at it, you can sign up here!) We feel that creating content that is of the utmost quality that folks are eager to see it arrive in their inbox is an awesome goal to shoot for.

With email signups as our number one goal, we’ve also taken a new look at a handful of other stats that might be worth tracking, too. There’s probably no escaping the measurement of blog traffic; in our case, as we grow traffic to the blog, we will also grow opportunities to collect more emails. Social shares remain important as well; we often cite the social proof of a well-performing article when we send out stories for blog syndication.

Here are a few other ideas that we’ve mulled over:

  • Time on site
  • Engagement with content
  • New visitors vs. returning visitors
  • Bounce rate
  • Pages per visit

Over to you: What do you measure?

Social media measurement is one of those topics that makes for endless points of view and fascinating discussions.

We’ve found that the traditional view of conversions doesn’t quite fit with our blog’s place in the conversion journey. Right now, we feel good focusing on retention through email signups and continued growth of traffic and shares. You may have a totally different strategy!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and strategy in the comments. What do you measure when it comes to social media and content marketing metrics, and how? How important is social media ROI?

Image credits: pasukaru76Smart Insights, Moz, SlideShare

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Written by Kevan Lee

Director of marketing at Buffer, the social media publishing tool for brands, agencies, and marketers. We’ve got a new podcast! ?

  • Hi Kevan

    Really interesting posts and it relates to a lot of the work we do at Velocity Digital. The content play for many of our clients is to spark initial awareness and build from there. Attributing that to a straight conversion (or sale for many of our clients) is very hard but also can be foolhardy. The potential brand relationship and trust that is build via content is huge and is something that we see working very well with the outreach work we do via Twitter – giving people an answer or info to help them with an issue etc – all content leads directly back to the brand. A nice, soft approach. Buffer FTW!

    • Hi Mike! Thanks so much for this comment! I love the way you put this: “All content leads directly back to the brand.” That’s so right! Awesome to hear your perspective on this. Thanks. 🙂

  • dpmsocial

    I keep seeing Kevan Lee recommends this on Medium and Kevan Lee recommends that on Medium and now, seeing the Buffer blog posts that I keep reading, I finally realize who Kevan Lee is. That’s some heavy duty social currency you’ve got going.

    I think you’re right on point with the complexity of ROI. It’s not just leads or sales, it’s much more than that. But that being said, when we founded DPM Social in 2009, it was purely on the basis of sales conversions. I needed to know that if I’m moving to India (where I presently reside) and that I want to pursue social media as a career, it NEEDS to give people results. Knowing the Indian mindset and being an Indian myself, I knew that a sale is the only marketing a traditional Indian businessperson could really latch onto. I got sales. Using the combination of Twitter and e-mail marketing, within 3 months, I was able to over-deliver my customer’s expectations in NYC and I knew that social media was powerful.

    So I brought it to India. A complex burgeoning marketplace with fear factors of e-commerce and till date, we run into people who are actually afraid of being on social media or have no idea what it is in its full scope.

    For me, social media ROI can be calculated in a few ways: to build trust for a brand and to convert a stranger into a friend, who will most definitely buy from you in the future.

    As an added bonus, if you want to increase your ROI it’s important to bring in the magic of evangelism. This happens when you, as a social media manager, use your own clout to influence people in a positive manner about your brands. This is what matters now, more than ever.

    I’m thankful to you Kevan Lee for bringing this ROI business into the open with such eloquence. Lovely article.

    • Thanks so much for this comment! It’s really amazing to hear. I love what you’ve said about building trust and converting strangers to friends. Those elements can definitely be hard to measure!

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  • Alan Martin

    I think the main issue for ROI in social media is setting appropriate objectives. Without an appropriate pre-defined objective, it is very much like saying what is the ROI of the phone. Very difficult to calculate at that level but if you say what is the value of the phone for a specific direct response marketing campaign, then that can absolutely be calculated. I believe ROI can be meaningfully calculated but it needs to be at campaign level rather than at a channel level.

    • Hi Alan! Awesome insight here! I love the distinction between channel and campaign.

      • Alan Martin

        Thanks Kevan, keep up the good work:-)

  • It would be best to banish the term ROI from the discussion about the effectiveness of social media and social networks. It stands – as we all know – for “return on investment” which has its origin in finance, i.e. a financial investment of X in a new plant will return amount Y for new products sold which results in amount Z for additional profits.

    That’s where the validity of using a purely financial term for non-financial activities and actions has to be questioned. Especially if, as so many seem to demand or expect, there should be proof of a direct correlation between input and outcome.

    It would be more constructive and lead to better understanding if terms like “results” or “outcomes” were used instead of “return”. This would also eliminate those rather forced comparisons with the “ROI of friendly service”, or “ROI of a new logo” etc. and put the emphasis on using the most effective combination of tools to produce a defined result or outcome.

    • Love this perspective! Thanks! Yes, ROI has definitely found its way into our lexicon for better and for worse. I think these conversations are so great to have because they make us really think about what we’re tracking and why. I love how you tied ROI back to its financial roots – it does seem a bit odd to bring those broad brush strokes over into social, when you put it that way! 🙂

      • Alicia Marseille

        I don’t know. I think investment is not purely a financial term at all. If you look outside of the traditional academic definition, Wikipedia has a great definition, “Investment is time, energy, or matter spent in the hope of future benefits actualized within a specified date or time frame.” The return part is a measurement tool and the measurement tool is what assigns the numeric value. The numeric aspect is what makes it somewhat scientific, and enables us to create hypothesis, learn, and form a highly effective and efficient strategy.

        The measurement, analytics, also helps us to understand if we are gaining any traction or going anywhere with our efforts. We can then learn to create effective strategies, which is what I think is imperative for any business (my blog I just started

        I do agree that there needs to be a direct correlation between input and outputs to measure the return, and clearly if we are reading this blog we are looking for ways to gain more of a return on something. If I put X (X = time, energy, or matter) into a Y (blog, product, service, etc) then I expect a return of Z (can be whatever you want the return to be).

        Just because there are academic disciplines or categories doesn’t mean we have to be governed by them, but if entire global systems have been constructed from them then I do think there is something to be said for them (whether we agree with the inputs and/or outputs is an entirely different and horrid socio economic political conversation).

      • Lena Kotler

        I personally try to use the phrase “ROO” or “Return on Objective” it gets your audience away from the idea that there must be a financial element to the return your analyzing. And sometimes getting that space is the key to getting your clients/readers/user/whatever to understand the difference!

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    • Well said. I’ve been on this mantra for a while and it seems the people who truly get it have as well (thinking back to the famous Gary Vaynerchuk, “What’s the ROI of your mother?” comment).

      Social media is a touch point and, more often than not, primarily a way to leave an open door to customers. It’s dubbed “social” for a reason — it’s not a sales tool. Never was intended to be a sales tool and probably never will be.

  • Just tweeted this one. This is a post starting content marketers and agencies selling content strategies should all read. Focusing on quantitative, immediate ROI when starting a blog can be quite depressing. It’s a long-run thing. Thanks, Kevan!

    • You got it, Francois! Thanks for sharing! There are some great thought leaders who share this sentiment with us, and it feels good to push this conversation forward. 🙂

  • This ties into something else that Rand mentioned on one of the MOZ WhiteBoard Friday podcasts. He stated that MOZ figured there were about 5-7 visits to their brand points (site, blog, social media, etc) before someone converted, and either signed up for a trial, or subscribed, etc.

    If all of your efforts are focused toward making sure that “X” brings in # conversions, you’re wearing blinders. For tracking purposes, it might be nice to know which outlet hooked the conversion, but as long as you realize that “the brand” received another conversion, that’s what matters.

    Buffer caught my eye when they were still posting lifehacking bits to the original Buffer Blog. I was a casual Tweeter who had the bad habit of ignoring my feed for quite a while, and then posting an avalanche of stuff all at once. I didn’t like HootSuite’s $$ first philosophy, and happened across Buffer. Their blog hooked me, but the app’s ability to do what I needed it to do, with minimal fuss, is what caused me to convert.

    So, was the ROI (as it now pertains to marketing) in the blog, the actual product, or the referral from a friend?

    For me, It was all of the above. The referral set the hook, the blog postings reeled in the line, and the actual product landed the conversion.

    • Hi David! Thanks for sharing your Buffer journey here! I think your experience paints a great picture for our difficulty tracking ROI from the blog. And boy, Moz sure does have amazing insights, too, don’t they? That’s an awesome point you bring up about visits, sources, and conversion. Thanks. 🙂

  • All nice and a great article. yet,,, drop the Social Media ROI out of it ’cause: 1) seems the main problem is you’re defining ROI wrong 2) seems you’re just using the social media ROI term as a click bait to the article.
    I honestly recommend you veer away from Gary’s ideas about ROI and read more Olivier Blanchard’s blog and correct ideas about ROI, actually making that switch will help you even more to understand why you’re doing the right things with your blog and why you’re missing just one angle to actually understand where to measure ROI.
    Remember ROI is a financial measure of money out money in .. that’s it, any other ROI definition is just BS.

  • AnnMullen

    Great work, Kevan. I have pondered this for a long time. I like your decision, but it might not be so good for a small local business that doesn’t possess a lion’s share of the market. We have had success with guides/white papers for getting email addresses, but the # is still low. I will keep your idea in mind while I continue to ponder. Thanks.

  • Thanks for the quote mention, Kevan! “Always be converting.” =)

    I’d like to kibosh any
    notion that social media ROI is impossible, intangible or not a meaningful performance metric for content strategy. I have several SEWatch articles and presentations debunking this
    myth: (how to map goals to KPIs) and (how to tangibly measure benefits). Marketers should always measure estimated and actual impact of tactics for any channel to: compare approaches via a common currency, prioritize and select the best options, prequalify budget feasibility (cost-based analysis), and gauge time/effort/impact effectiveness. We should never just “do marketing” and *then* try to quantify its benefit.

    After reading this post, I’m inspired to write an article regarding inbound marketing ROI done right to offer clarity on measurement possibilities and insights. I’ll send you a note when I publish it. =)

    Some measurement inspiration for the mean time:
    “If a metric won’t change the way you behave, then it’s a bad metric” – Ben Yoskovitz, Lean Analytics author.

    • I’d love to read a post about inbound marketing ROI! Looking forward to it. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here, Angie!

    • Love this way of thinking @aschottmuller:disqus and I’ve always lead with the idea that don’t give me data unless you can answer the question “So Freaking What” not saying it has to change the way I’m doing something but that data without context, goals or strategy is just a number to me! I would love to see the inbound marketing ROI post!

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  • Hi Kevan! Thanks for pulling our Unbounce article into your post. Much appreciated.

    We have definitely shifted our thinking to realize that the majority of our interactions on social media are “first touch,” and top of the funnel. Of course there are ways to directly attribute conversions from social media (ebook downloads, new trial starts), but it’s not always 100% accurate and isn’t typically one of our main goals.

    Building our online community (and brand awareness) is my primary function. Metrics I track are growth, engagement and traffic to the website via social referral. Once I get them to the blog, or a landing page, it’s on our content team to make sure the reader wants more and is wiling to give up an email address or sign up. My job is to provide interesting “teasers” to get them to click, engage in conversation, answer questions quickly and build up relationships. Everyone is important in our community. I’m not going to discount someone just because I don’t see them as a lead!

    Stumbled on this post (via the Buffer suggested content, no less) and it included a quote from Gary Vaynerchuk I thought was great: “What is the ROI of your mother?

    PS Just noticed that Jonathan already mentioned that quote but still want to include it anyway 🙂

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  • I’ve had the luxury of focusing on community and people first and then integrating the power of social media and technology. By doing this it changes the conversations from what’s my ROI to how can I help, relate, engage and show people that we care about people. Focusing on social or technology as the tool much like a phone, vacation hours and employee training, I’ve been able to provide examples of quick wins and expand the conversation into marketing and social selling. Great stuff as always @kevanlee:disqus

  • Jobs in Food Mfr

    Excellent article. Social media should really be viewed as
    the perfect platform to raise, brand awareness, interact with clients and
    provide, where possible, insight and knowledge. Unlike traditional marketing
    social media ROI is not only difficult to measure but the ROI parameters should
    have a completely different focus.

  • Daniel

    If you follow the ROI line, shouldn’t GRP’s be part of the afore mentioned metric?

    Seriously, trying to assign some fixed, one size metric for all ‘social’ efforts puts the cart before the horse.

    It is correct to stop and consider the goals, because as you note they’re not all the same.

    Subjective experience (that’s right, subjective) has been that social is valuable as a complement to brand assets. Maybe it sparks conversations on a given platform, that entices back to brand assets. Or maybe it’s simply dispersal- generating supplementary brand exposures (which would be branding). Social- it’s like the new brochure! Do CMO’s ponder the ROI of a given brochure? Spare me!

    Presently, social marketing (inc. content marketing- although that’s hardly new) is challenged with being the new kid on the block. We already know the short coming of other media, so there’s the expectation that content/social will address all of this. Oh, yes, and that it will do so for free. But that’s a kvetch for another post.

    Thanks for a well considered perspective!

  • Sarah Stahl

    I like your Comment JEBworks! ROI although important means something different to each business owner as each person has something different they value as a “return”. I think it’s time it’s given a new, more appropriate name “Results of Investment?”

  • sergeitoom

    Hi, Kevan. I can measure my Nanotechnology/ New IP of Nano /. I found these Nanotechnologies and I know how they are working. New Vision + New Technologies + New Business Decisions for SME’s . Kind Regards, Sergey .

  • Finola Howard

    Hi Kevan – great article as always – you might also be interested in this article about new ways consumers are buying – The Purchase Fish –

  • I tend to agree – we talk a lot about having the KPI’s all wrong for content… and I would even argue that one of the sole purposes for blogging is awareness, which can’t be measured on a direct conversion basis. Per your focus on the funnel above – and even in describing your own journey – I think .

    I cover a lot of this ground (and am including a link to) my post “why you’ll never succeed at content marketing” – I just added a link to your post here. Very complementary. Thanks for the insight – I wish I would have run across this one BEFORE I wrote mine. 🙂

  • Sarah Stahl

    As a social analyst, I was totally defensive about where you were going with this article. But, after sticking it out to the end I can see what you mean. There is no doubt that determining ROI is not clear cut and by monitoring clear cut metrics the ability to do so becomes easier. Yet tracking the true buying process is quite illusive and I prefer to trust the process by believe in my product rather than resort to more evasive monitoring tactics. Great read, very thought provoking and I really appreciate your insight on this topic.

    • Hi there Sarah! Thank you for the comment! So glad to hear that this one resonated with you a bit. Love your sentiment about “trusting the process.” I think that’s so great!

      • Sarah Stahl

        Absolutely Kevan. I think it’s important to remember we (as marketers) are dealing with people and bottom line isn’t necessarily the “bottom line” but how we treat and respect others as humans. That’s why I “trust the process” because I’m confident that respecting others builds companies far beyond the value of a simple ROI measurement. Thanks again for your insight. This will stick with me for some time 😉

  • Any time we budget for costs, we ought to be looking at ROI. However, the direct marketing, cash from transactions today measure is a small faction of the profit from a social media spend.

    Removing measurement is a sure fire way to problems with the boss. Giving them the real measures of profit will get you all the funding you need.

    Most branding work is measured this way, the trap is using the rich transactional data available in digital instead of the whole picture. The social media ROI story is great, let’s not shrink from it

  • Courtney Lawrence

    This is a wonderful read I just took a summer course on social media and this was one of three books we used.

  • When the conversation is the conversion (conversational conversion) you can obtain and measure direct ROI