Pretty much any company worth its salt is engaged in using social media in some capacity for business purposes at this point. As someone who has built a solid consulting agency using social media and content marketing, I can attest to the value of it holistically.

But as with any marketing channel, return on investment comes into the conversation especially when discussing social strategies with medium and large business clients. Businesses as a whole have become metrics obsessed, and the day of saying we “have to do social media” regardless of the numbers is past (for the most part).

So how exactly does one measure social ROI? Is it even possible, or should we be evaluating its performance in some other way?

Social Media and the Buyers’ Journey

From an SEO perspective, it is critical to make a website easy to use, navigate and crawl (for search engines to index the content). However, there is a whole separate angle that matters for marketing and sales.

A good website will help usher visitors through the whole buyers’ journey, sales cycle or decision process, depending on which catch phrase you use to describe it. In years past, you could expect to control how the buyers’ journey experience played out. In many cases you could rush the visitor along toward conversion while still on the website.

Fast forward to 2014. That old “control” model no longer works. One of the biggest changes that social media has introduced is a transfer of control of the conversation. Now the visitor has a great deal of control over what they want to consume, what works for them and where they will find the information they need to make an informed purchase decision.

Given that mindset, social media naturally changes the focus from website to web presence. It’s not about how you maneuver the on-site experience. Your web presence is pervasive, extending to social profiles, review sites and even word of mouth.

While you do not control the whole conversation, you have a golden opportunity to influence it. You have to provide the information needed at all stages of the buyers’ journey, so prospects can find it themselves during the research phase. It requires a leap of faith, in that you must deploy a lot of content and features on the website before you can truly test effectiveness.

So if you only have influence, not control over the conversation, how in the world can you measure ROI with any level of certainty?

Different Metrics for Different Social Tactics

This is where it gets tricky. The old model of correlating a user behavior with a revenue generating conversion is fast becoming old hat.

Users will find you on social media, visit the website, ask friends what they think of you, read reviews and do everything they can to be informed before they ever allow you to talk to them. Most users don’t want to talk to you until they’ve already whittled their list of potential solutions down to the top three to five. By the time they actually engage with you directly, they are typically very close to asking what the price is.

The important thing to remember is that when managed properly, social media plays a very similar role in your sales process that PR does. It can help build awareness, drive consideration, build a list of prospects and -- sometimes when things fall just right -- close a sale. But for most companies the majority of the value it provides cannot be directly attributed to revenue.