Social Media: Beyond the ROI issue

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Below is the contribution which I sent to the council on behalf of Orange Business Services.

social media: beyond the ROI issue

With the advent of the Internet since the middle of the 1990s, users have become used to not only getting what they want online, but also to being able to participate and interact with each other. 15 years later, the widespread use of the Internet as a source of information and also a place where users can help each other and solve each other’s problems has changed the face of commerce, of organizations, and even relationships within the hierarchy. In view of these changes which have permeated every section of the outside world, enterprise communications must get to grips with the benefit from the great potential which is made available by the use of social media. The power of the Internet to connect people and get them to interact can not only be used internally, but also outwardly and ultimately with one’s customers to begin conversations in a brand new way. The expected results can extend way beyond the mere ROI issue. This is what we have experienced at Orange Business Services with our 2008 Security Blog initiative.

a B2B blogging perspective

Earlier this year we embarked on a very ambitious project aimed at rewriting our entire corporate communication on the Internet. To my team, it appeared clearly that this was more than a mere corporate communications exercise. But what would a web strategy be without the use of up-to-date 2.0 web tools? We then thought we had to use blogs as part of our strategy. It appeared to us clearly that blogs would be an essential part old at the tragedy not because they were flavor of the month (actually they aren’t a lot less fashionable than they used to a few years back) but because of the intrinsic benefits and values that can be derived from blogging. We are in business to business. What does that mean? Most blog initiatives/stories will relate to initiating discussions with ‘consumers’. Does that mean that blogging is not for us? On the contrary, I believe that it is even more apt for our type of business, but the rules are somewhat different, and the ROI question might also be very dissimilar to what is to be found in the consumer business arena. So we have no consumers, but we do have a lot better than that: I mean we have ‘ecosystems’, i.e. a multi-faceted, multipolar system of interactions between buyers, users, executives, business owners, technicians, consultants and opinion leaders to name a few. This complex and somewhat intangible network of relationships is at the heart of our business. What I mean by that is that we don’t just send salespeople to see buyers and that’s that. We have to nurture this ‘ecosystem’ and issue messages at all levels of understanding within it in order to foster discussions, interest and possibly action. And to be honest, this is what makes the job so exciting. It’s not a matter of issuing a single message towards a single ear but a matter of initiating much broader discussions and influences. In that perspective, leadership of opinion is paramount, and expertise is what makes leadership of opinion credible in our type of business. All this contributed to impose blogs at the centre of this new web strategy. How else would we establish opinion leadership if we didn’t have a tool to express it? In this article, I have zoomed in on our blog initiative, what motivated it, the results we’re expecting and what we’ve already taken away from it, and I will eventually focus on the return on investment and why I think this is a false issue and an easy one to solve in my eyes.

The Orange Business Services security blog: a test-bed for a brand new marketing approach

We have more than one blog already available or in the making but I will focus on our first initiative, the Orange Business Security Blog which we developed from our main base, to serve as a test-bed for a new marketing approach aimed at changing the way that we engage with the ecosystem which we have described above, both nationally and internationally.

Why we launched this expert blogging initiative

This expert blogging initiative has in fact more than one objective. First and foremost, it was a matter of positioning Orange Business Services on some innovative segments on which we are already present and for which our brand awareness can actually be reinforced. Blogging does enable one to fulfill this objective through the inversion of the conventional logic of Corporate communications: we are no longer issuing a single top-down and sanitized corporate message to which the public – in actual fact the ICT ecosystem at large – has to respond or not. In this particular case, experts have a direct say in their area, they naturally establish the credibility just because of their own competency. Natural skills are at the heart of this initiative and this is what makes it all possible.

Besides, thanks to the bridge we have established between our experts across the world, the blog is an actual stepping board for the increase of our brand awareness and image in all the countries where we are present – 220 countries and territories, 160 which will direct presence. Only the Web makes it possible for us to communicate on this kind of scale with that much efficiency. The very nature of messages contained within a blog has a real impact. In essence, blog content has to be rich and user-orientated. This will de facto improve – and has already improved – our search engine optimization, and therefore our visibility and our credibility online. Progressively, the entirety of the www.orange-business.com portal will be rewritten with the same spirit as the one underpinning this blog.

Creating internal motivation

Internal motivation is also another objective. All bloggers will tell you this: a blog is a fantastic tool which can help you work better as well as accelerate business development. Besides, we will also use the blog very shortly to create interactivity on our main website. Thanks to the RSS widget which we will soon be deploying, it will be possible for us to insert rich content within the website without having to manually edit it at all. As a result, the blog also becomes a cost-effective and effectual way of producing home-made quality content on the website.

Why did we choose network and IT security as the main theme for this blog?

Orange Business Services is naturally positioned on end to end security. Security is an essential ingredient for the quality of operations of networks, and today it is impossible not to have a communication services activity without encompassing security from an end to end point of view. Orange is de facto credible in that area. Besides, this topic is both a service, a solution but is also very much touching on consulting activities. It is therefore particularly adapted to blogs and for initiating discussions on the Internet. Lastly, security is a popular subject in our business, it is a very rich topic and there are loads of expectations surrounding this topic, for which much can be read in newspapers and online information newswires. This is the guarantee for a rapid and interesting renewal of the matter linked to this subject, and therefore a real success factor for an expert blogging initiative.

This initiative is not so much about generating vast numbers of visits, but more about ensuring the satisfaction and the exchange with a new readership, this ecosystem related to our preferred targets. We have also chosen this topic in order to prove the point both externally and internally that expert blogging is adapted to this new form of communications which we would like to adopt. There will be other subjects on our agenda, encompassing consulting services, real-time applications and other preferred subjects of Orange business services experts.

What we are expecting from this blog

What we are expecting from his blog and expert blogging in general is to bring dynamism in the provision of new content. This will make it possible for us to focus on the main topics of interest for our website visitors. This is what is going to create the event and help us facilitate the ecosystem I was referring to above. Of course, this initiative is also good in that it will help us increase our traffic, although I repeat that the objective is not to measure ourselves against the number of visits, but rather to initiate discussions online, namely with regard to the comments we can gather but also the external link exchange policy which we have created and which starts to generate numerous and quality links. We have created this corporate link exchange policy document which is now being published online, and our wish is to open up completely our websites to the exchange with external partners. Having external links is an absolute must-have for a blog but also for a website, even a corporate website. As a consequence it is absolutely necessary for us to transform the way that we communicate externally; this security blog is a real efficient way of fulfilling the objective.

Once we have initiated these online discussions, in the Cluetrain manifesto sense of the term (www.cluetrain.com), we will then be able to open our blog to external security experts. This will be a way of opening up even more to the outside world. This kind of initiative has already been developed quite extensively by the consumer arm of the Orange group.

How we are getting ourselves organized for expert blogging?

First and foremost, there are just our security experts to start with. They are a dozen overall; they are very motivated and very competent. However they are only a fraction of our experts in security networks, but they are the most proactive with regard to our initiative, they are our change agents. We have identified round about 60 experts in the field across the entire organization. As we go along, there will be more experts being introduced in our group, based on cooptation. Only expertise enables people to contribute, there is no other criterion. Besides we have made ourselves organized behind these experts, in order to support them, not only from a blogging point of view, but also from an organizational point of view in order to minimize the impact of this ancillary activity on their main activity. At the end of the day, we want to give them an ability to voice their opinions and statements towards our clients and the ecosystem and large, and this should also make it possible for them to uncover new engagements with them. If we want to fulfill this objective, it is necessary that we get ourselves organized at all levels in order to minimize the impact on their personal time. This is why we have created several levels of blog administration which, without getting into too much detail, enable us to maximize and optimize their time. We have established a roll-call of our experts so that they can actually feed the blog permanently without getting all of them to work on the blog at the same time.

Lastly, we have also made ourselves organized so that the users who are also the producers of this content would be awarded prizes based on the quality and quantity of the work that they have produced: therefore we have set aside sums of money to actually reward them with iPhone 3G’s, AirBook’s, eeePCs etc.

Who chooses what subjects?

The choice of subjects is very important in our eyes. Only experts can personally choose which subjects are tackled on the blog. Regularly we organize phone calls and web conferences in order to discuss these subjects and the way that they want to handle them in order to give everybody an opportunity to improve, and that includes ourselves in the organizing team. In no circumstances do we give ourselves the ability or even the right to criticize the subjects that have been chosen. The organizing team is only here to support and not censor the topics for which only the experts are deemed competent. With regard to comments we have decided to moderate all the comments by default in order to protect ourselves from libel or even the publication by third party of illicit content on our space. By the way this is a legal obligation, but there is no censorship at all. Opinions must circulate freely on the web (within certain legal boundaries which we have secured with our legal department). Being a big logo is not placing us above Internet rules. On the contrary it forces us to respect them and play by the rules.

At the end of the day this user generated content exercise is far more than a simple technical and organizational exercise, but a real in-depth work on our marketing and on the way that we address our ecosystem. It is all about being true to our word and the company motto: open up!

about ROI and measurement

a few thoughts about Social Media ROI

Before we delve into the particulars of ROI measurement one has to get back to the definition of those terms one is trying to measure. What is ‘social media’ to start with? Fred Cavazza (http://www.fredcavazza.net/2008/06/09/social-media-landscape/), one of our most influential Gallic web experts produced an interesting story in English about the fact that the 2.0 phrase – originally coined by O’Reilly in 2004 – has been oversold and is now slowly but surely replaced by another buzz word, i.e. ‘Social Media’. Sure enough, I have heard it rumored here and there that quite a few Web 2.0 initiative are being re-branded.

Rest assured, the web – be it 1.0 or 2.0 or even beyond – is not bound to disappear, let alone its ability to bring people together to collaborate/cooperate. This is indeed the gist of the demonstration which is part of my lecture on collaboration, collaboration tools and their market at the Paris Graduate School of Management. And likewise, blogs will not disappear. The buzz may thin out a little, but not the aim, and not the power of words either (I hear/read here and there that video will replace the printed word, and this is really ludicrous. Video does supplement the printed word; it enhances it but can’t and won’t replace it because it can’t and also because search engines aren’t image friendly, and also because video doesn’t serve the same purpose and doesn’t require a lot more concentration effort from the user). At the end of the day, one may wonder whether 2.0, 3.0 and other social media concepts are not killing Aesop’s goose which laid the golden eggs. Can’t we just go ahead and do it and forget about the concept machine for a while? After all, reality will catch up one day, sooner or later, and good concepts and bad concepts will be sorted out by themselves. The Web – in its entirety – and with its tendency to reinvent itself in a cyclical fashion is here to stay and it has been collaborative from day one. Other concepts may go. But do they only matter?! Blogs are like that. One may decide to rename them, or even to merge them into another – more powerful technology – but it doesn’t really matter in fact. Their purpose will remain, for the gap they fill in the communications world is all too significant.

back to basics: what is ROI?

As a result, trying to prove the point for Social Media is not really the issue I’d like to focus on. Let’s get back to basics and zoom in on our blog initiative in the B2B arena. And let’s ask ourselves the question: what is a return on investment? before we try and apply it to an expert blogging initiative.

In actual fact, it is “a performance measure used to evaluate the efficiency of an investment […]. To calculate ROI, the benefit (return) of an investment is divided by the cost of the investment; the result is expressed as a percentage or a ratio. (*)

Musing about this definition and trying to take a bit of hindsight regarding what ROI is and what it isn’t, I have uncovered the following findings. Firstly the cost of investment in this particular instance is really negligible. It is so small that I’m even reluctant to share it with you. When starting this initiative I went the Saas route because I didn’t want to focus on technology but rather on usage. Yet, we are ready to shift it back home at any given moment, but even that would not be a big investment. There is no real big money involved with that kind of initiative, at least umpteen times less than trying to set up an equivalent static website or revamping my humongous all singing all dancing CMS (*).

Secondly, the effort related to the production of the content within the framework of the blog initiative is minimal too, not to say non existent. In fact it does exist but it is diluted amongst the experts. At the end of the day, expertise is their day-time job, and they are taking this expertise in front of clients on an everyday basis. Publishing on their area of expertise is definitely part of their job. Hence, the security blog is about user-generated content; experts produce the effort as opposed to us spending vast amounts of our budget to get to the same – or even a slightly less impressive – result. Saying it’s free would be wrong though, but the main cost of it all is change management.

Now think about the benefits that we are getting from that effort: more motivated experts, better visibility for our brand, more efficient communications, direct debate between experts, and facilitation of the entire ecosystem, brand awareness and image improvement. The list is endless. Forrester’s Li and Stromberg reported about the GM FastLane (*) blog that: “We estimate that the ROI of FastLane for its first year of operation in 2005 was 99 percent […]” (*). Does that come as any surprise? I remember the first ROI questions I got 20 years ago when I was in charge of implementing marketing business systems for Unisys. We were deploying one of the world’s largest private e-mail system. The main feedback we were getting from our execs sounded like “OK, I could check my e-mail by myself as opposed to circulating paper notes and getting my secretary to filter my notes, but what would be the impact on my bottom-line?” Needless to say I tried and tried to elicit the tangible quantifiable benefit from our top execs using e-mail by themselves. I started calculating the time they would have to invest behind their screens and given their daily rates, I came to a quantifiable result. But eventually I refrained from showing these numbers, for they were somewhat scary. No matter what, we had to deploy that e-mail system, it was a part of communications, it enabled us to do things we couldn’t do before. It didn’t make any sense to only measure ROI we had to think beyond ROI and think value added instead. How else could we communicate across 40 countries worldwide?

beyond ROI

At the end of the day, no one ever questioned the viability of corporate e-mail. All execs around the world – barring a few stars maybe – answer their e-mails directly, and no one is has ever come back to me about the ROI of corporate e-mail. And yet – as I demonstrated in an article on that subject recently(*), there would be a lot to account for on that subject. Just like web conferencing is not just a matter of saving on travel costs(*), but rather a manner of bringing more projects to life and therefore increase productivity, expert blogging has made it possible for us to multiply our efforts and transform ourselves from a business leader into an opinion leader.

A lot of passion has been put into this project and this is only the beginning. Thinking about the excitement we get from the teams who are involved in blogging, the passion with which they talk about their subjects and all news related to security, the coverage we are getting from all the main online IT magazines, I believe that the ROI of our expert blogging is over and done with and something that no one I have ever met here is thinking of questioning.

This change in rules which turned markets into conversations is something I have witnessed and participated in for the best of the past 15 years and now Orange Business Services is bracing itself up to face this new challenge and support, facilitate and engage in conversations with its eco-system. Good managers understand that easily, there is no need to demonstrate ROI with wonky 99% numbers which don’t mean a thing.

When I asked our head of Marketing & Communications a few weeks ago whether he would like to blog in Orange Business Live(*) too, he said why not? And he went down to business only a few moments later. Then he wrote his first post and he realized that it didn’t take him more than one hour at the most. And he then realized that he was able to address the world with his vision – not with top-down sanitized corporate stuff but with real personal visionary content(*), straight from the horse’s mouth. And he rapidly came to the conclusion – so he told me afterwards – that he had been given a unique opportunity to share his vision with our ecosystem and the world at large about Green IT, and therefore I knew that I didn’t need to spend more time on calculating ROI. Subsequently, this question never cropped up any more.

I had proven my point, expert blogging extends way beyond the ROI, it is about vision.

this text is copyright © 2008 orange-business.com – Yann Gourvennec – Head of Internet and digital media

  • this article is also available in pdf format by clicking here: blog-council-roi-article-v4

(*) definition courtesy of http://answers.com the investment dictionary, http://investopedia.com

(*) content management system (the application we use to publish stuff on the Internet without having to tweak html manually)

(*) http://fastlane.gmblogs.com/

(*)  http://www.ecommerce-guide.com/resources/market_research/article.php/3658776

(*) http://visionarymarketing.com/articles/emailusage-1.html

(*) read more on our Orange Business Live blog on this subject : http://www.blogs.orange-business.com/live/2008/09/roi-study-sheds.html

(*) http://blogs.orange-business.com/live/

(*) http://www.blogs.orange-business.com/live/2008/09/is-ict-a-good-g.html

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Yann Gourvennec

CEO & Founder at Visionary Marketing
Yann has a long-standing experience in marketing, information systems and Web marketing. He created visionarymarketing.com in 1996 and since then, he has practiced Web strategy, e-business and Web communications in the field. He was a member of socialmedia.org from 2008 till 2013. He is a lecturer, a keynote speaker, an author and blogger. In early 2014, he went from intrapreneur to entrepreneur when he founded his digital marketing agency Visionary Marketing.
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13 thoughts on “Social Media: Beyond the ROI issue

  1. Social media companies that will be affected by the current financial environment, it is the traditional media companies like radio, newspapers and magazines. Spending large amounts on print ads or radio ads will not produce the ROI it has in the past, as people move out of those media.

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  3. Hello Yann,

    Merci pour ton article. Pour ma part je serais un peu plus précis sur l’investissement nécessaire pour écrire un article :
    – la recherche en amont (identifier un sujet digne d’intérêt, y attacher des infos glanées ici et là, soit de manière “sérendipitaire”, soit activement),
    – la rédaction proprement dite (entre 20mn et 2h selon la longueur de l’article et sa forme : insertion de liens html, de photos, …),
    – et sans oublier sa promotion (Digg & Co, mais aussi auprès de sa communauté de pairs via des échanges de liens, …), immédiatement et par la suite, ce qui passe par un suivi des liens entrants.
    Pour moi chacune de ces étapes doit être faite (ou du moins pilotée directement) par l’expert lui-même, ce qui représente tt de même pas mal de temps …
    Bref, si tu as mis en place un tableau de bord de suivi (de la production, mais aussi des résultats), je suis curieux d’en savoir plus.
    Personnellement j’analyse la valeur d’un blogueur selon 4 axes : autorité, pertinence, audience et résonance. Elle est ainsi mesurable selon des critères adaptés au “social media”, mais compréhensibles par des chefs d’entreprises dans une logique de corporate communication, …
    A ta disposition pour continuer la discussion,

    Amaury

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  5. In this case, you didn’t need to sell the ROI of social media tools and tactics because the client was already onboard.

    I’ve worked for companies whose execs (Marketing included) had never heard of LinkedIn, thought Facebook was a teenage fad, and didn’t allow anyone but the legal department to speak about their company. When approaching that kind of culture with the concept of social media and open communications, ROI has to be part of the conversation. 😉

    Tres bon article.

  6. Thanks for your comment. You didn’t quite get my point. I DO have to sell social media and of course not all people know about facebook and twitter – even our mba marketing students seem to be unaware that microblogging exists! – what I pointed out though is that I didn’t use the ROI argument. It’s more a matter of return on engagement (ROE) I should say. http://blog.clearcastdigitalmedia.com/2007/07/more-on-roe-ret.html

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