This post revisits the social media ROI (return on investment) question, focusing in particular on whether we're making progress in terms of the challenges put forth by organizational leaders and other experienced professionals who have been resisting increased digital engagement. Playing off the ROI acronym, it provides alternatives for interpreting the ROI argument. It then articulates – and counters – seven assumptions on which the resistance arguments are often based. The post concludes with some indications that leaders may be moving away from specious arguments and balancing concerns about ROI with the equally important COI (cost of inaction), and invites others to share their insights and experiences as well.
A little over a year ago I wrote The Social Media ROI Challenge: What it Really Means (and 7 Related Faulty Assumptions). After kicking off this year with Social and Digital Tech Trends: 9 Take-Aways for YOU and Digital Era Adaptation in 2013: A Long and Winding Road, I thought I would revisit and update my thoughts on the question of social media ROI (which can also be extended to the adoption of other new digital technologies).I welcome the insights of others as to whether and how we're making progress on addressing the important Digital Era issue of new technology adoption by organizations and their leaders.
- Courtney Shelton Hunt, PhD
ROI is Often Code for...
Technological advances continue to outstrip the willingness and ability of many organizational leaders to address the opportunities and challenges they present. When it comes to social technologies in particular, skepticism has been widespread, and often manifests itself in questions about the kind of return on investment (ROI) leveraging these technologies can produce.
These questions seem perfectly rational on the surface, and it appears that leaders who ask them are fulfilling their fiduciary responsibilities and acting as good stewards of their organization's limited resources. But looks can be deceiving. All too often the ROI argument has been used as a smokescreen and/or a form of filibuster against moving forward. In my experience, when organizational leaders and other experienced professionals talk about the ROI of social media, they’re not just referring to Return On Investment. ROI, in fact, is often code for:
- Ridiculous Online Indulgence. In their disdainful dismissals of social media, people still highlight the (over)abundance of vapid and banal social media activity (e.g., people sharing what they had for lunch) and characterize the people who engage in it as shallow and narcissistic, with too much time on their hands.
- Real professionals Only Interact in traditional ways. There is a clear bias among many professionals toward how things have “always” been done. The phone, and in-person exchanges - and even email - are seen as inherently superior to newer forms of digital interaction. More importantly, the different types of exchanges are viewed as mutually exclusive rather than integrated and complementary.
- Resist Out-of-the-box Ideas. In spite of all the media hype surrounding social media and digital technology, people are not particularly quick to adopt – let alone embrace – new ideas and thinking.
- Reserving Our Interest/Investment until we see what others do. For better and worse, most senior professionals tend to follow more than they lead. Though there may be a strong desire to “keep up with the Joneses,” very few people actually want to be the Joneses.
- Risk aversion Over Innovation. Even when they recognize that they probably need to move forward, fear – of the unknown, of failure, of unintended consequences – holds them back. The risks of engagement are always clearer than the risks of inaction.
- Respect Our Idiosyncrasies and Inconsistency. If pressed, leaders and other experienced professionals would have a hard time defending their negative positions on social media and other digital technologies, especially relative to other positions and decisions. But many of them seem to expect others to accept their arguments at face value and not question or challenge them.
7 Faulty Assumptions Underlying Resistance
Generally speaking the resistance arguments contain a number of implicit - and often faulty - assumptions, including:
1. Social media technologies – particularly the public platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – represent the complete range of digital technologies available today.
- Today’s digital capabilities are far greater than most people realize – and they’re expanding every day.
- People need to think beyond software, to hardware and networks and analytics too (i.e., SMAC - social, mobile,analytics, cloud).
- When it comes to software in particular, they need to think beyond specific platforms to the tools and technologies that comprise them.
2. Organizational leaders know the ROI of current practices for marketing, branding, selling, etc. - and it's good.
- The links between many current practices, such as advertisements and trade shows, is difficult, if not impossible, to measure.
- The costs of traditional approaches can be much higher than comparable digital efforts.
3. Current communication and collaboration practices are efficient and effective and cannot be improved on by leveraging new digital technologies.
- The limitations, challenges, and frustrations of email are well-known.
- Many in-person meetings are considered an avoidable waste of time.
4. It's appropriate to hold new practices - particularly new digital technologies - to higher standards than existing practices.
- People need to be willing and able to critically examine current approaches. There should be no sacred cows.
- The relative value and utility of different approaches should be determined based on a fair assessment.
- It’s unrealistic to expect any approach to working to be “drag free.”
5. Leveraging new technologies requires adding them to rather than integrating them with or substituting them for current practices.
- We should all be open to identifying ways to work smarter, not just harder.
- The best approaches to achieving goals/objectives should be pursued.
6. It will all settle down (or maybe go away?) at some point, so why bother engaging and suffering through all the chaos before it does.
- The only constant in the Digital Era is change. Expecting things to settle down is unrealistic.
- By the time the laggards choose to engage, it could be too late. At a minimum, they will have missed out on a number of potentially great opportunities.
7. It's better to wait for a "silver bullet" solution than to invest in the necessary hard work now to climb the required learning curves and lay a foundation for future success.
- As in other aspects of running an organization, there are no silver bullets.
- Success in the Digital Era requires a new mindset, as well as new knowledge and skills. Learning new ways of working is unavoidable.
We're Making Progress (Slowly)
It's perfectly appropriate for individuals and organizations to decide not to take more advantage of the digital capabilities that currently exist, as long as they're making informed decisions. When it comes to organizational leaders in particular, they have a fiduciary responsibility to understand the new environments in which their organizations operate so they can provide the proper guidance, both strategic and tactical, as well as the necessary resources their organizations need.
As a practical matter, digital technology is only going to continue to advance, and the longer people wait to understand and embrace it, the more risks they take with respect to creating and maintaining their own success. In addition to being concerned about the ROI, in other words, they should also be thinking about the COI – the Cost Of Inaction.
Fortunately, there are encouraging signs. I'm seeing and hearing less resistance. And although there is still some reluctance, the acceptance of new realities and the need to understand (if not embrace) them is increasing. Here are a few specific examples from my own recent experiences:
- In two weeks I will be leading a digital engagement strategy session for the Midwest region of a large grocery chain. This chain's excellent brand reputation has facilitated their talent acquisition efforts for years, but as they expand into new markets where they're less well known, they recognize they have to up their digital engagement efforts to continue to attract top talent.
- Earlier this year I met with two different groups of executives and senior professionals in transition (in one case presenting Job Search in the Digital Era to over 100 job seekers). The response to both sessions was extremely positive, with virtually no skepticism about new social technologies and their importance. The recepton to those talks has led to a project focusing on how senior professionals can and should enhance their digital competencies, from both career management and organizational leadership perspectives. (If you would like to participate in this project, please email firstname.lastname@example.org)
- I am also developing an initiative with a leadership consulting firm that will help leaders develop their digital competencies. The managing partner has the vision to recognize that no quantitative "proof" is needed to determine that this is an important area his firm and their clients must begin to tackle. Proof of concept is sufficient for him to move forward.
Although progress is often painfully slow, I am encouraged by the shifts in both attitudes and behaviors I'm seeing so far in 2013. Are you seeing encouraging signs too? If so, I'd love to hear about them!
Note: many of the above pieces include links to additional resources.