Analytics & TestingContent MarketingEmail Marketing & AutomationSearch MarketingSocial Media & Influencer Marketing

The Blurry Lines of Marketing Return on Investment

Yesterday, I did a session at Social Media Marketing World called How to Shift From Growing Followers to Producing Results With Social Media. I’m often a contrarian to the advice that’s continually pushed in this industry… even leaning a bit on the controversial. The genuine premise is that businesses continue to look for fan and follower growth in social media – but they do a really terrible job of converting the amazing audience or community that’s already in place.

Within the session, I even went so far as to question many of the ROI measurement claims out there when it comes to a return on investment for your social media efforts. One of this blog’s greatest friends is Eric T. Tung… who promptly tweeted:

It was especially funny since my well-respected colleague (and karaoke master), Nichole Kelly, was simultaneously sharing her session: Brands Pull Back the Curtain on Measuring Social Media ROI. Doh!

It’s not that I don’t believe there is a return on investment – I believe there’s a great return on investment for social. In fact, I believe it’s far better than most companies currently believe. The problem is the measurement. There are multiple ways that your social media efforts impact a return on investment:

  1. Direct Attribution – people saw the message and they made the purchase.
  2. Indirect Attribution – people shared the message or referred someone socially to you and they made the purchase.
  3. Brand Attribution – people see you online and see you as an authority in your industry, leading them to research your products and services.
  4. Trust Attribution – people follow you online, and you gain their trust, leading them to purchase your products and services.

Direct attribution is easy to measure… some good campaign tracking and you’ve got it down pat. The problem with measuring social media ROI comes with the others. They don’t always utilize your campaign tracking – or they arrive and purchase at your site through other online marketing channels.

Google Analytics has a fantastic tool called the Multi-Channel Conversion Visualizer where you can see whether or not your visitors utilized a multitude of methods to get to your site. In this actual screenshot below – you can see where the lines are becoming blurry. A very large percentage of the conversions on this site came from people that accessed the site in more than one manner.

While you can conclude that they don’t have a very good email marketing program – applying an exact ROI on referral traffic versus organic search is impossible because you can’t get in every visitor’s head and decide which channel the investment made them decide to purchase.


I would submit that it’s not which, it’s a balance of all of them. Marketers are going to have to understand how each of their strategies impacts the other. When you reduce social media efforts, for example, it can have an impact on your organic search conversions! Why? Because people don’t get curious about what your products and services are and so they don’t search for you. Or they lack trust, so they search for competitors with a better social presence and convert with them instead. Or everyone is talking about your competitors who do have an outstanding social presence… which leads to additional articles about your competition… which leads to them ranking better.

As marketers, we’re in need of predictive analytics tools that recognize the impact and relationship of all of our efforts – helping us understand how they feed one another AND how they work with one another. It’s no longer if we wish to share socially and measure the return on that effort in direct attribution, it’s a matter of testing and adjusting our social media efforts and viewing the overall impact of the strategy across all of our digital marketing efforts.

Our job is no longer to determine which medium to use… it’s a matter of balancing resources to optimize how much effort we put into each. Imagine your dashboard as a soundboard, turning up and down the dials until the music is beautiful. A return on investment for social media can be measured – but the reality is more blurry than some of the advice out there.

Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is CMO of OpenINSIGHTS and the founder of the Martech Zone. Douglas has helped dozens of successful MarTech startups, has assisted in the due diligence of over $5 bil in Martech acquisitions and investments, and continues to assist companies in implementing and automating their sales and marketing strategies. Douglas is an internationally recognized digital transformation and MarTech expert and speaker. Douglas is also a published author of a Dummie's guide and a business leadership book.

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