Does Proof Exist That Social Marketing Makes Money?

The following post is from my colleague and our CMO Group Advisor, Erin Streeter. I thought this topic was critical to our community of marketing leaders. If you have any questions for us, please comment below, reach out to me, or contact Erin at estreeter@forrester.com.

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As the Senior Advisor for Forrester’s CMO Group, an executive peer networking organization, I field strategy questions from senior marketers on a daily basis. And while I’m constantly getting questions about social media (“How do we get started?”, “What is its place in our marketing mix?”, “Can we even play given our regulated industry?”), one CMO Group Member recently asked a very straightforward, but extremely challenging, question: “What proof does Forrester have that social media adds to the revenue stream?”

Of course, we have anecdotes and strong examples to support our thesis (and not just ours) that a properly executed social media strategy deepens consumers’ engagement with brands and therefore drives revenue, but this CMO wanted more. Beyond a collection of case studies, he wanted macro-level data, along the lines of what’s established for search and other digital channels, proving that given a certain set of conditions, “social marketing grows revenue by X%.” Well if Forrester had that kind of concrete data, we wouldn’t need a sales force. So how can we move beyond the abundant proof that social media impacts buzz to proof that social media positively affects revenue? An article in last week’s New Media Age suggested that while many organizations are privately confident that social media has affected their numbers, social marketing “won’t grow unless brands release results.” Author Charlotte McEleny suggests in the article that more brands follow the example of lastminute.com, an online travel booking site, in publicly revealing what they hope to achieve (in actual British pounds!) by leveraging social media.

I’m admittedly biased in favor of McEleny’s suggestion. I manage a networking organization designed to encourage the sharing of both positive results and missteps to make marketing leaders collectively more successful, but time and again as CMOs find value in the aggregated best practices of their peers, I am convinced that transparency feeds the tide that lifts all boats in the practice of marketing. I agree wholeheartedly with McEleny: If more brands offer a glimpse into social media’s real ROI, social media skeptics in the C-suite can be won over, paving the way for investment in social and added value for customers and brands alike. Competitive concerns will always be valid, but organizations should be giving more careful consideration to what they can really afford to share given the potential payoff. If you subscribe to Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the social movement that’s currently under way, transparency is, after all, the way of the near future.

What about in your organization or your industry? What do you perceive as the barriers to sharing results, or are they limited to competitive concerns? Do you agree that social marketing has only to be backed up with existing (though hidden) data to reach its zenith, or do you remain unconvinced on other grounds?