emarketer-social-buyingA recent study from Sprout Social, as reported by eMarketer, shows that upwards of 50% (depending on the demographic group) of people who follow a brand on social media will wind up buying something from that brand, either online or off. The odds of a purchase being made increase if or when that person has a positive interaction with the brand on a social channel.

That statistic gets to the heart of one of the most frequent conversations around social content marketing programs, which is what the ROI of the program is. Execs and stakeholders want to know what the real business value of all those updates that so feverishly slaved over is and the answer is too often elusive, even for those most deeply acquainted with the program and its goals.

There are numerous studies and reports that purport to explain what the actual dollar value ROI of each individual Tweet or Facebook post is. The internet is lousy with such things that try to affix a specific dollar figure to each social update or blog post that’s published by a brand. In my opinion such studies and analyses have done more harm than good to the social marketers who are out there breaking a sweat each day as they wrangle content and balance editorial calendars.

That’s because, as friends and colleagues like Mike Manuel and Dave Coustan often intoned, value is cumulative. It’s almost impossible (with a caveat I’ll get to in a minute) to say that X Tweet resulted in Y dollars coming into the company. Putting that kind of pressure onto every single update is a sure way to drive program managers mad since they’ll be called on the carpet for the ROI of dozens, if not hundreds, of individual posts each month. Social networks are too fickle about what they show, particularly algorithm-based networks like Facebook and Instagram, for that kind of tracking.

Instead the value of the program needs to be viewed as a whole. X Tweet may not have resulted in many directly attributable sales or other conversions. But the overall goodwill and connection that is built up in the audience over a period of time – days, weeks or even months – will often generate more sales, even if those can’t be traced back to any one update. It’s not an individual post that spurred the action, it was the constant, positive presence of the brand in the feeds of an individual that lead her or him to make the decision to purchase your brand over someone else’s when they were given the choice.

So now for that caveat: I’m not saying that tracking direct sales from social programs is impossible. I’ve seen and been part of programs for which it absolutely was through the use of tracking codes that showed exactly which updates converted on a final sale. But even these programs took the long view, tracking not just the final push to purchase but also the previous journey through the funnel for the customer. So a post on February 15th may have been the one that finally spurred someone to buy the product, but they also visited and read these three previous posts to get more information before doing so.

If you’re tracking ROI of social programs, make sure you’re not doing so with blinders on. The value of those programs is greater than just the final trackable conversion. It’s about the overall brand positioning that’s built up over the life of the program in the minds of the consumer. Measure accordingly.