Don't Limit the Possibility of Awesome

This week I was asked to calculate the return-on-investment (ROI) for a social media idea and forecast how viral it would be. Rephrased slightly, this request can be broken down into two questions: 

  1. How much profit will this idea contribute to my bottom line?
  2. Can you predict how many people will spread this idea?

Last week, Seth Godin blogged about these two issues separately. First, he addressed the ROI question in his post “On Buying Unmeasurable Media.” He argues marketers should never try to measure unmeasurable media and use that to make decisions. He also argues companies should “go big or stay home” when it comes to investing in unmeasurable media by saying, “Small investments in unmeasurable media almost always fail.” In his second post, “Ideas Spread Because…” Seth offers up 20 different reasons ideas spread. The common theme is two-fold; first, there is no exact science or methodology people can follow that allows them to come up with a distinctive, spreadable idea. Second, there’s certainly not an exact calculation to prove how much profit a spreadable idea will contribute to the bottom line.

Add social media to the mix and the exactness of it all becomes anything but exact. Social media efforts primarily take place on some form of the Internet. Because we’ve become savvy at measuring consumer behavior online, companies expect everything to be measured in detail. But they have no idea what exactly should be measured in exact detail. In other words, they think it should be measured simply because it’s measurable. Makes sense, right? Wrong.

After spending the afternoon contemplating how to answer the unanswerable ROI questions, I came across a few interesting tweets related to this matter. One from Seth Pederson (@sethornone) and the other from Kelly Groehler (@kellygroehler):

Love the Einstein quote. Appreciate the mockery in Kelly’s post. In short, we can’t count or measure everything. Even if we could measure everything, that doesn’t make it right or necessary. If we continue to insist on measuring the value of everything (i.e., the media value of news), we’ll continue to talk ourselves out of doing things we haven’t done before. Companies will compulsively obsess themselves into not executing against remarkable ideas. When this happens, the possibility of awesomeness being introduced to the world goes down dramatically.

Having said all this, we as marketers can’t pass the proverbial hot potato. We need to be held accountable for reporting back the results of our efforts. But we can’t hop right into forecasting results. We first need to clearly define objectives, create strategies and then identify which metrics will be tracked to measure performance. If you’re executing in the tried and true marketing world, forecasting might be your next step. For example, we know the basic averages of what the response rate will be on a direct mail piece. Therefore, a marketing manager might be able to forecast how many sales will occur as a result of their efforts. But we can’t apply the same thinking in the emerging media space. Again, most of what we’re doing hasn’t been done before. There’s nothing tried and true about it. There’s no benchmark. We can clearly identify the metrics to measure (e.g., brand mentions, sentiment, social sharing, likes/followers), but taking the next step to forecast results will only end up in disappointment. Don’t try to magically predict earned impressions. Resist the urge to manifest ROI. If you do and don’t deliver, fingers will be pointed and we’ll end up right back where I left off in the previous paragraph … a world with less awesomeness. And no one wants that.