Last week, the HR Technology Conference and Expo came to Chicago, as it does each year. At one point during a discussion of blogging, the question of return came up. Here was what I tweeted when it did.
My frustration with the question came from the fact that, for those of us on social media, the answer is both self-evident and also, at the same time, maddeningly resistant to measurement. The question is also prone to rebuttals such as, “How would you calculate the ROI of the phone?” But for the uninitiated, the question does deserve more of an answer than my flippant tweet, because—let’s face it—while “the phone” may defy measurement, inside salespeople have long been able to calculate the ROI of their phone calls. So something is going on here that’s measurable… right?
Below are things to consider when asking yourself, “What will we get for our efforts when blogging,” as well as an overview of what I’ve gotten personally from blogging over the past few years.
Calculating a Blog’s ROI: What Makes it Difficult
- The ROI of blogs is directly dependent upon the quality of the communications they enable. Just like it is with phone conversations or meetings, communication quality is highly variable person by person.
- Because blog posts have staying power, ROI calculations can change over time as new people discover and respond to old posts.
- If John Wanamaker’s quote about marketing is true—”half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half,” then the problem is compounded in social media because of the outsized impact a single blog post can have. ROI calculations across multiple blog posts sometimes come back looking very, very strange. Traditional evaluation methods are built on statistical models that focus on clustered norms… but in social media, the norms are more or less a wash and we earn our return on the outliers.
- Because of the small cost denominators, tiny changes in the underlying assumptions can skew wildly the anticipated returns. So not only are the expected returns often laughably huge, but they also have these extremely wide ranges!
- There is no baseline for comparison, because baselines and best practices are still evolving. Blogs may be mainstream, but the specific many forms they are taking are each still climbing their respective adoption curves in their respective niches. This adoption phase is an uncomfortable place for many, because it means for those willing to engage, it’s difficult to know if the return is good or bad even when you can put numbers to it. You can’t compare blogging to phone conversations or meetings (for the reasons above), but at the same time, you can’t compare your blog to others’ blogs, either. There’s simply no good, quick answer to the question, Compared to what?
- Returns are neither evenly nor predictably split between the individual contributor and the organization. You know how some bands get huge as bands, while others break up and spin out solo stars? Well it can be hard to predict if that successful social media campaign will strengthen the company’s brand… or the individual’s brand… or both.
Now, that’s the bad news. Here’s the—albeit anecdotal—good news from my own experiences. In order from least important to most important:
- I’ve made money. I’ve received requests to speak, coach, and train in organizations as a direct result of things I’ve put up on my blog. I’ve also sold a book or two. (The books are really good, too. Hint, hint.) Let’s not get crazy with this, however: I’d put the amount of money I’ve made from my blog in the mid-to-high 10s of thousands; I’d be surprised to discover I’ve booked over 100k directly because of my blog. Usually, I still have to work the sale.
- I’ve saved money. Whether the blog created an initial contact, or was used later in the sale cycle, I can promise you, I’ve saved a bundle on marketing costs thanks to jasonseiden.com/failspectacularly.com. Whereas in previous years I might have spent 10k to 35k on marketing, including printed materials, press kits, and pr, now I spend next to nothing. Just about everything I need to support the sales process is online, and some things—such as a professional video—are often waived as requirements by clients because they can see my delivery via YouTube, and my manifesto is pretty much outlined right here.
- I’ve saved time. Blogging has allowed me the ability to experiment with my voice and product mix. By tracking usage and then making changes to the content, about page, or site design, in just a few months I can pretty much tell what’s working and what’s not. I’ve then used that information to tweak my sales pitch and explore new opportunities. My voice is always me, always genuine, but as you may have already discovered yourself, there are countless ways to express the true you… some of which are more marketable than others. I can’t imagine a more effective vehicle for experimentation of this sort. Also, more than once, I’ve been asked to speak on a specific topic I’ve written about; that sort of simplifies things when a client wants you to basically come in a read a blog post to a group.
- I’ve made true friends. This one really came home at last week’s conference. The people I’ve built relationships with through social media aren’t like conference buddies. They are people I talk to. I can pick up the phone and call them, and I’ll get a call back. They’re as interested in what I’m doing as I am in what they’re doing. These are people who I’m glad to see not because it’s ever an escape from real life, but because I’ve come to know them in real life—in some ways, better than my friends who are not on social media. Through their blogs, I get to know their thinking. I see the real “thems.” (I understand that orchestra tryouts are held with a scrim separating the musician from the judges, lest visual cues unconsciously bias the judges. In a way, blogs act as those scrims, allowing me an unvarnished view into the people I interact with. I’m thankful for that.)
I’m also not sure how to put a value on these types of friendships. Last Thursday, sitting in one session, I could look around the room and friends I’ve made in Portland, San Francisco, Dallas, Birmingham, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and Philadelphia. But more than that, I could look at these same people and know that our friendships were more than bonds of convenience; these were ties built around mutual interests, mutual respect, and proven ability. These are friends with whom I could do business, who I could recommend if they needed a reference, and who I could ask for a recommendation without fear of ever being accused of nepotism. In real life, you’re lucky to have a small handful of relationships like that. Through blogging, I’ve made a group of friends in which that’s the norm.
Thinking about blogging? I hope I’ve given you things to think about… and reason to get engaged.
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.