Why should I care about Social Media ROI

I’ve seen a few posts recently raising the issues of Social Media ROI again:

And they have got me thinking about whether I (or we) should really have to worry whether social media tools will actually make a return on investment or return on impact? I do get the feeling we have all been here before and yet we are still talking about what we know is wrong!

Part of my thinking and reasoning also comes from why some parts of the public sector ban access to these tools – as a result of narrow thinking and policy making which in my opinion is flawed and demonstrates a short-sighted view of not just technology but of people.

All to often I hear people talking about Social Media as if it offered intrinsic value, when in fact the opposite is true.  Social Media is in fact extrinsic value – The value only comes from when you do something with it – An empty social networking platform is an empty social networking platform.

Maybe I am missing the point somewhere along the lines but for me where is the “value” in me measuring something that intrinsically offers no value? If I take a view that “outcomes” are key then surely I should be measuring the outcomes directly and this implies that i understand my current performance in the area where I have deployed a new set of tools and processes aimed at improving the outcomes. After all, if I wasn’t looking at Social Media I’d still have to understand whether the outcomes have improved.

I’d also need to measure the productivity and performance of those people using these tools. Combining these two aspects will provide me with a view of whether or not a particular set of tools as well as changes in process etc have made people more productive, perform better and improve the overall outcomes. For me just because a member of staff has access to a corporate twitter account and Facebook page, doesn’t make them more effective or efficient, for some people it may make them less efficient. Either the wrong tools for the job or a lack of training to use the tools appropriately and effectively.

I’m reminded of what I blogged about this time last year – 1 rule and 6 steps to embracing Social Media in Local Government

Rule Number One:

Don’t focus on the technology, technology itself doesn’t do anything, their is a saying that we use in my council “there is no such thing as an IT project, their are only business projects”. The key message here is YOU need to focus on business problems and issues and if social media tools are part of the solution then great. But don’t force social media where it isn’t needed or wanted. To put it another way, try using a social media tool that offers you no value for me something like friendfeed is that tool, i don’t get it or understand it, so i don’t use it, at this point in time it doesn’t solve any problem i have.

This also aligns with a view that I have taken on the issue of banning access. I have heard people say in the past that social media will encourage people to mess about and essentially become poor performers. When I believe that the opposite is true here also. Social Media will simply amplify poor performers and if councils open up access they will have a method of identifying poor performers and those staff who abuse the use and access to those sites.  I remember that when we went through this process a colleague asked me to ensure that our policy was robust enough to ensure that if staff misused and abused access they could be disciplined accordingly. I couldn’t agree more with this but I didn’t share the same motives.

So I guess what I’m saying is we should focus on the outputs and outcomes and also look at the performance and productivity of staff. If we focus less on technology it will actually become more useful and start to offer more value. I shouldn’t have to care about Social Media at all – should I?

DeJa Vu – A lesson for social media

A colleague and friend of mine Martin Howitt has just started blogging outside the comfort of our team blog, where he was the most active blogger. I should blog more over there and will do in the coming weeks about IT/Business Alignment and the benefits of Enterprise Business Architecture in reducing the “lost in translation” effect that often happens when business folk talk to IT and vice versa. I am current fascinated by this issue as it can also help explain some of the issues and negative perceptions that people have about social media.

Anyway, Martin has provided an excellent post on the ROI potential of Social Media and had provided some great seeds for others to hopefully expand  and build on.

Martin states:

it’s probably time someone tried to start mapping out the benefits of SM right across the piece so that a full business case can be made by those who are trying to make the change in their own organisations.

via The social media ROI braindump « Martin Howitt’s blog.

This is the DeJa Vu aspect of the post – haven’t we been here before, with email and council websites and online services?

What we need to remember here though in all this conversation around Social Media ROI is that it wasn’t that long ago, that some councils didn’t even have websites and that officers within councils had to construct a business case for email (yes really a business case for email) – but don’t we all have one ( or even more) now and don’t we all believe even the doubters of social media that email, is a tool that if switched off would have a detrimental effect on how businesses run and function.

The shift and progress around local council websites was helped by the now infamous eGovernment agenda, but credit also needs to go to Socitm who year on year publish Better Connected (whether you like it or not, it provides a snapshot of what is happening) – eGov also did many good things but in my humble opinion failed to address the real issues in technology innovation – again a topic which i will touch on in my IT/Business Alignment post. But we also need to remember that a number of councils had websites before this and were doing some great innovative work on them including online services.

My council (Devon County Council) has had a website (as well as a basic intranet) since around 1998 and it grew organically much like other websites, starting with a strong tourism and visitor information presence into other council services and information resources. I wasn’t involved in the web at that time but i can imagine the type of discussions that were had about developing a County Council website, were quite similar to what people are saying now about social media sites. What is the benefit, how many people will use it, it won’t and doesn’t reach everyone yet….and so on. The key message is, you HAVE to start somewhere and you HAVE to be patient, even more so with social media as we are dealing with relationships and connections with real people, not transaction or visitor statistics.

We (local government) were given targets and timescales to get our websites up to date and up to speed with a set of basic requirements plus a sprinkle of transactions. The ROI that is being used and promoted is that the cost of interacting with people over the web is cheaper and more cost-effective, well it can be if your services are connected to your back office and people are not having to intervene in the process.

BUT where eGovernment failed in my opinion is that instead of focusing on developing online transactions that people actually wanted to use and demonstrated a high volume potential (based on local need and preference) we were mandated to deliver all of them in one way or another. So for most people eGovernment became one very large technology project and it lost the support of people in the business due to the amount of time available.  Plus with so many services developed, the marketing message became diluted with so many services that not many people used. We could be in danger of doing this again unless we start to connect people in the business to the opportunities and technologies out there, whether this is social media tools or not.

OK, so this is where Martin’s post for me gets really interesting. It starts to connect business terms with outputs and opportunities of Social media   – Martin picks out 9 areas, here are a three of them:

  • Infrastructure (administrative management of eg buildings) -> need maintenance and planning (and even strategy) -> SM can streamline maintenance processes, alerts, and educate people in how to get the best out of their investments.
  • technology -> Social media can reduce email, provide mashups, enhance remote, mobile and flexible working. This is a big topic in itself.
  • HR management -> social media tools can be used to provide early warnings of things that are bothering the workforce, ways to access employee resources (like workplace counselling or learning and development); conversely the blocking of social media sites can be demotivating for employees

What WE and i mean everyone who is currently able to work on this stuff proactively, needs to start looking at the metrics and agreeing some consistent ways in which we can demonstrate effectiveness and cost savings. We also need to really start looking at the business issues which our employers have and be flexible enough in our approaches to accept that social media won’t work everywhere.

I think we need to start with opportunities where there is a desire and opportunity to demonstrate value. It sounds obvious but i often here people talking just about twitter or facebook without linking that to a specific business objective. It seems to be more about demonstrating twitter and facebook can work instead of demonstrating that we can improve business outcomes by using a new set of technologies and tools. It is only then we will actually start seeing the ROI of these tools, but it will always become complicated because it will in nearly all cases be part of a wider provision including face to face, telephone, web etc.

For me, all of the tools provide exciting opportunities but that is all they are until i can connect them to a business problem in my council. The new skill for social media people won’t be about the tools but will be about understanding business (people) problems. Which is afterall one of the key features of anything “social”.