I always tell the story of the day a supervisor at a former company told me, "We should get on Twitter."

Get on Twitter. Why? Because others are doing it, of course. 

There was no game plan. How much should we tweet? When should we tweet? What should we tweet? Are our clients on Twitter? Nope, not even that question was considered. 

Today, of course, social media seems to be all we can talk about when it comes to marketing. Even B2B marketers have caught on. Having a presence in social circles is a must.

But is there really any return on investment (ROI) in B2B social media marketing? What good are likes if they don't get you leads? What is the purpose of a retweet if it doesn't lead to sales? What kinds of tools and metrics are used to measure ROI in social campaigns?

Outcomes can't be measured without clear objectives, it seems. B2B marketers diving into social media marketing campaigns pretty much can't do that -- just dive in. But even with a plan, is there a true, proven way to to produce ROI? We all want to be sharp with our answer when that inevitable question comes: why did we do this social campaign, anyway?

We decided to ask some industry leaders.

The Question

Are there proven metrics to demonstrate ROI from B2B social media marketing campaigns? If so, what are they, do you know case studies of success, and ultimately, is social media a worthy avenue for B2B marketing to begin with?

The Answers

Carla Johnson, Principal, Type A Communications

digital marketing, Discussion Point: Can ROI Be Achieved in Social Media Marketing?

Johnson helps companies develop frameworks and build teams to tell better stories in order to generate top-line revenue. She’s a lead consultant for the Content Marketing Institute, where she writes on the power of brand storytelling, content marketing, sales enablement and innovation. She also serves as vice president of thought leadership on the Board of Directors for the Business Marketing Association, is an instructor for the Online Marketing Institute, contributing author to the book, Advice from the Top: The Expert Guide to B2B Marketing and writes for CMSWire and other business publications. Tweet to Carla Johnson

Social media can serve as a strong component of B2B marketing when it’s planned, integrated and executed properly. As with any tactic, the key is to use it correctly and integrate it with the rest of your marketing mix. 

The metrics you choose should reflect the objective(s) that you’re trying to achieve. What kind of behavior do you need to motivate through social media and, knowing that, how will each of the different social channels play a role? 

Cisco does a great job with its YouTube channel and has a significant following – over 33,000 subscribers and almost 5 million views. It works because they know their audience very well, and it serves as a resource for both customers and sales teams. They also use their blog and Facebook to promote their thought leadership articles, so they’re able to engage and educate their audiences across a range of issue while driving conversations and SEO rankings at the same time. 

Then I see agencies, like Doremus, who create tools such as their DNA (Doremus Network Analysis) in order to help clients in a very sophisticated manner. By analyzing Twitter networks to determine audiences, influencers and geographic location, for example, Doremus helped HP raise the awareness of its ZED desktop workstation – they were able to increase peer advocacy in the target audience by 66 percent, deliver lead generation of 11:1 and generate over 18 million Twitter impressions. 

When B2B marketers create social media plans, they have to understand the purpose behind their efforts. “I’m focusing on Twitter so that…..?” They have to understand how to answer that question to ensure that what they do delivers ROI that move great business objectives forward – not just campaigns. Great social media, just like great content, needs to be purpose driven. 

Carter Hostelley, Founder and CEO, Leadtail

digital marketing, Discussion Point: Can ROI Be Achieved in Social Media Marketing?

Hostelley is the founder and CEO of Leadtail, a social media strategy and insights firm. For the past five years, he has championed  the power of social media to reach, engage and influence buyers to CMOs and senior marketers at leading business brands and venture-backed companies. His firm also develops and publishes social insights reports to help B2B marketers better understand how their target audience engages on social media. These reports have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, Forbes, Huffington Post, Adweek and CFO.com. Tweet to Carter Hostelley.

Social media is a worthy avenue for B2B marketers. As a matter of fact, buyers are not giving B2B marketers much of a choice. They are increasingly turning to social media to learn about solutions that can help them, and then using it to research which vendors they should consider for a given solution. 

If you, as a B2B marketer, don’t understand this dynamic is happening and choose to under invest in social media, then you are putting your company at a huge competitive disadvantage. 

With that said, there’s no question that generating a positive ROI from social media is a challenge for B2B marketers. I believe this is because most B2B social media initiatives are still in the investment, NOT the return stage. 

Meaning, by and large, B2B companies are still figuring out their content strategies, building out social media channels, putting in place the right tools to track and attribute social media results, and learning how to engage prospects in a way that leads to, well, leads. And all of that takes time and isn’t easy to figure out. 

Now for those B2B companies that have robust content operations, high quality social channels, and integrated social media and marketing operations, they are absolutely seeing their social media efforts move the dial for their businesses. That means they can measure social ROI in a way that’s consistent with how they do so for other marketing programs. 

For example, they can look at the value of referred website traffic, landing page clicks, email signups, etc. coming from social media, and then compare against what they’re investing, and optimize, accordingly. 

More advanced B2B companies are also building cost-efficient social media strategies by using contributor content models, leveraging social marketing technologies, focusing efforts on the most relevant social channels and encouraging social participation by employees.  

Who are examples of companies doing B2B social media the right way? 

My firm’s social insights research on B2B marketers shows that a number of marketing vendors including @HubSpot, @Salesforce, @Marketo, @Eloqua, @KISSMetrics, @Moz and @Unbounce are doing a great job of combining high quality content with robust social channels. 

Is social media marketing working for them? I’d say so. What about positive social ROI? Getting there for sure.

Christine Polewarczyk, Senior Director, Global Marketing, SDL 

digital marketing, Discussion Point: Can ROI Be Achieved in Social Media Marketing?

Polewarczyk is senior director of Global Marketing at SDL, a customer experience management company with deep roots in globalization. Polewarczyk has spent the past 14 years in the B2B technology industry -- the first eight in online IT journalism and the past six in global marketing roles, focused heavily on digital marketing and social media. She is an evangelist for content strategy, content marketing, SEO and social media. Her current mission is to help global enterprises navigate digital transformation and modernize their marketing technologies and processes to optimize the digital experience for multichannel and multilingual customers. Tweet to SDL.

Social media is a non-negotiable component of B2B marketing for brand awareness and affinity, reach and engagement. It is also playing an increasingly critical role in customer support, product development insights and innovation, lead generation and social selling.   

However, the question of how and what to measure for B2B social media ROI is still a little tricky. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, the following metrics are typical areas of focus for social KPIs:

  • Reach and engagement metrics (likes, follows, shares)
  • Social-sourced website traffic
  • Lead activity (conversion on asset landing pages, webinar registrations, etc.)
  • Brand sentiment
  • Share of voice

If you want to measure social media contribution to actual revenue, this will require thoughtful planning and an investment in new tools, training and processes for your marketing team and others in your organization supporting your social efforts. 

For basic reporting from social sources, do your due diligence when setting up campaigns and social posts. Leverage Google’s URL builder to create UTM tracking codes so you can see how your social media campaigns are performing against traffic and conversion goals you set up in Google Analytics. 

Additionally, if you are using a marketing automation platform like Marketo or Eloqua, you can create custom fields that tie back to your CRM and provide lead source tracking data. The fields are populated from data contained in the external referring URL, captured by a website tracking cookie, and are then submitted via hidden fields in website form submissions.

Obviously, to make this level of tracking and reporting even a remote possibility requires having a more disciplined approach to how you post to social media channels, along with a fresh look at the integration between your website, marketing automation system and CRM. 

Considering all of this, social media ROI should not exist in a vacuum. Social is just one component of what should be a holistic and integrated approach to customer experience that traverses multiple channels, devices and languages.  

When running global campaigns, it’s best to look holistically at the ROI across all channels individually and as an aggregate to determine the value of each activity. Of course, you would want to see how social contributed to a campaign on its own, but it’s also important to understand that it is just one of the components in the overall success of a campaign.  

In the end, marketers should be measuring the marketing-sourced or marketing-influenced contribution to actual sales of the campaign as a whole.