Social media has been around for awhile now.  Everyone’s had a chance to wade in.  And the question of return on investment continues to rankle. But there have been a few positive developments.

Counting the number of hits is out. Understanding who the hits come from is in. And putting some kind of value on social media interactions is useful. Both David Berkowitz at agency 360i and the folks at Razorfish have tried to quantify this data and look at what it takes to create influence and affect decision-making.  A lot of this is just a new technology take on the psychology of human cognitive behavior published by Albert Bandura in the 1960’s and 70’s and still a guidepost for those of us who work in fields where we need to understand how people react to internal and external influences.

So what can we measure?

That’s the wrong question. We need to first think of how we measure. The key is understanding no one buys your services or donates to your cause after just one interaction–whether that’s through social media or traditional media.   It’s cumulative.  So an ROI equation might put a value on these different elements: one personal interest PLUS multiple personal connections/referrals PLUS multiple social media interactions PLUS traditional media/email/direct mail influences PLUS internal influences (I want a car that looks like that; I think the world needs clean water) PLUS a triggering event (click here to get info on this car; click here to donate to clean water) = one Transaction That Can Be Measured.  You need to be pro-active on every front.  More and more, the fronts intersect through customer-driven social media.

Who can we look to for best practices?

One group that is ahead of the pack on social media ROI is nonprofits. They’ve been early adopters, partly because of the low cost of entry and partly I think because a large percentage of their staff are young and grew up with this technology.  Also, nonprofits have always had to get creative about raising dollars and being effective on mission.  NTEN, Blackbaud and Common Knowledge just put out their 3rd Annual Nonprofit Social Networking Benchmark Report and it’s loaded with some interesting data in this sector.  The survey of 11, 196 nonprofit professionals asked about both professional social networks (i.e. Facebook, Linked In, YouTube, etc.) and “in-house” social networks being built through their own websites.

If a key ROI metric is engagement, then nonprofits can check off the community-building box. 89% of nonprofits have a presence on Facebook, with the average community size up 161% since the prior year’s report (6,376 members), and YouTube up 504% to 2,702.  And those in the super-charged fundraising category (see below) have communities of almost 100,000 members.

Peer-to-peer sites like CrowdRise, FirstGiving, Razoo and Causes are also getting traction as places to build engagement.

If a key ROI of nonprofits is money raised, then social networks are evolving in this regard.  The survey identified 27 “master fundraiser” organization who raised at least $100,000 on Facebook over the last year.  While more than half of these were large organizations with $51M to more than $250M budgets, almost a third were small organizations with $1-5M budgets.

Environmental, animal welfare and international groups lead the pack in terms of largest communities, most tweets, etc. as measures of engagement. This is not surprising. I frequently use advocacy organizations as examples of best practices in my social media workshops because they have been in the vanguard for years (including when direct mail was just getting its start as the “new” way to advocate for causes.)

What’s new in social media with real impact?

According to the Benchmark Report I noted above, one of the interesting developments in the nonprofit sphere is the use of “in-house” social networks — i.e. those who register users through the organization’s website. The ROI equation is flipped on its head as the benefit is to the user: by registering, he or she gets the benefit of curricula, best practices information, advocacy or health content.  The benefit to the organization is clearly a more engaged user community connected directly to the mission of the organization.

For-profit organizations could take a page from the nonprofit sector by looking at what makes social engagement effective: a fulfilling user experience, a community with purpose, and tools that build customer loyalty–whether that’s to a brand of car or a way of changing the world for the better.

I’m not a big fan of bloated government. Lord knows I pay too much in taxes (as a self-employed person–nearly twice what you company folks pay for social security and medicare taxes!).  But I also know plenty of hard-working federal employees whose jobs make our lives and communities better and stronger every day.  If they’re gone for a few weeks we might learn to like them a little more.  And maybe the US Government brand will get a nudge in the positive direction.

For example:

3 million visitors are expected to descend on the nation’s many free Smithsonian Museums during Spring Break next week. Hundreds of these museum employees preserve our national heritage. They maintain specimens and artworks, provide educational opportunities for our school children, and welcome visitors from around the world.

The US Department of Agriculture, USDA, is our largest federal agency outside the Pentagon, and works on everything from school nutrition to soil conservation. At the Agricultural Research Service, part of the USDA, librarians maintain the National National Agricultural Library (NAL) that serves as our nation’s resource on everything from food safety to rural development projects.

At the Department of Commerce,  staff are busy promoting U.S. business interests around the world, but also here at home. They recently launched an initiative to promote businesses in the southwest, along the US-Mexico border. They also have their eye on future leaders, and with a host of volunteers who help them run the Presidential Classroom program for top students to study issues like the current financial crisis, hunger and poverty, and human rights.

Meanwhile, at the Centers for Disease Control, I have friends who are scientists at its National Institutes of Health where they are unlocking cures for cancer, lupus and Parkinson’s, among many many others.  The CDC is also tasked with protecting our public health through immunization programs, emergency response preparedness, and initiatives on fighting obesity in children–which is costing us plenty with rising rates of heart disease and diabetes in kids.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is in almost every state working on projects related to emergency management, flood risk management, the environment, hydropower, and water supply.

And these are just a few. I know, everyone loves to trash talk The Government (as if it were a monolithic entity that lolls about on the couch watching TV all day).  But if it shuts down, I’m hoping some of my fellow citizens and I will learn more about what many of my neighbors here in Washington (and across the country) do for the nation on a daily basis.

Lately I’ve worked with several law firms who are upping the ante in terms of their brand presence.  But with the recent demise of Howrey (who changed to the fashionable one-name brand as part of its re-branding campaign a few years back, not so many months before going belly-up), many may wonder if re-branding is not only a waste of money but also a portent of impending corporate doom.

I’d like to make the case that it’s not re-branding that’s the problem, but what goes on behind it.

The motivation for re-branding is the key to its success. If the goal is to put new packaging on an old product (The Gap), then it probably won’t work. If the goal is to re-present an old brand to new audiences (“it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile”) it can work, but needs to be thoughtfully designed. And if the goal is rolling out a new brand, then the success lies in whether that product or service really has an audience in the first place.

In the case of Howrey, the re-brand was preceded by a decision to streamline the firm’s business lines into several key areas: anti-trust, litigation, and intellectual property. The problem with that strategy–it became clear in hindsight–was that Howrey could no longer be an all-purpose corporate law firm.  When times were flush, that worked. But as the firm expanded and swallowed up competitors, it became more and more likely to have conflicts of interest and have to turn down work. Enter the recession, and the whole thing was over.  So it wasn’t the re-brand that killed Howrey, it was the strategy behind it.

So what kinds of strategies can support a re-brand? I believe in an integrated approach:

1. Use social media. Still frightening to many corporate and nonprofit leaders, social media allows organizations to engage clients and members with a personalized voice. It also gives them a way to receive feedback from clients, and tools for mining existing contacts for prospects. But social media requires having internal guidelines and teaching staff how to use it most effectively. It remains a task that is often foisted on the newest/youngest members of a team, rather than its most seasoned players, who are often your best brand ambassadors.

2. Advertising. Placing the right ad in the right venue can support other marketing initiatives and enhance name and brand recognition. One of my colleagues in the nonprofit space says her organization gets some of its top hits from a tiny, 1 inch sidebar ad in The New Yorker magazine. Knowing more about your target audience (which you can do through social media!) really helps in making an advertising strategy effective.

3. Logos, names and taglines. Re-brands tend to come with new identity packages and tag lines. Some are great (“Take your ideas to the world.”–Baker & Botts). Some are so generic you wouldn’t know what a company does  (“A tradition of innovation”–you know who you are, or do you?).  The key with logos, names and tag lines is not that you have them, but what you do with them. If your strategy is to put them on your new web page and sit back, waiting for clients to arrive, then they probably won’t make a difference. If you can position them in ways to grab attention and re-enforce market position, then they can help put you ahead of the competition.  Frankly, even The Gap gained loads of attention and a good read on customer loyalty to its original brand identity when it got negative reviews of its new logo.

4.  Web 2.0. Many organizations are still somewhere around 1.6, while some in the commercial world are fast approaching 3.0. Web 2.0 simply means the death of the web page as road-side billboard, with more interactivity,  more opportunities to refresh content, a recognition of the role of search engines, and the integration of tools like comments and video.  It is now what consumers expect of their vendors and non-profits.

5. PR Matters. This is where the softer touch of public relations comes into play. Buying sponsorships at your local AA ball park or supporting a local food drive could be just the right places to roll out your new brand, and provide better visibility and more targeted market segmenting than pure advertising.  Closing the gap between “hard” and “soft” marketing can also be accomplished with educational tools like a podcast series, that helps prospective clients see your expertise and talent in action, then link back to your products and services.  PR is also essential when something goes wrong with your brand–such as the recent debacle over the high-priced pre-term birth drug rolled out by KV Pharma.  Trying to drag out the PR hoses once the barn is already on fire is harder than having a strategy in place to begin with.

6. Use Real ROI. Counting the number of hits is out. Understanding who the hits come from  is in. Whether you use analytics tools from Google,  Lithium or Radian, you still have to decide what it is you are measuring and why. And since most service industry and non-profit marketing is cumulative, putting a value on the quality as well as quantity of your social media interactions is key.  (more on this in a future ROI post)

Takeaways: Re-branding isn’t perilous in of itself. It just must be accompanied by a strong strategy and an organization whose actions and words are consistent with its mission.