ROI: the null hypothesis

The We Are Media Project, to which I am a contributor, continues this week with Module 6: Considering the ROI of Social Media. For a summary of the materials produced for this module so far, read Beth Kanter’s excellent summary here. For a review of what the We Are Media Project is all about, visit the wiki.

Most discussions of the ROI of social media focus on one of two things:

  1. The return – the benefits that can reasonably be expected as a result of investing in social media; and
  2. The investment – what you can expect to spend in time, money, and other resources to obtain these results.

The part I want to talk about now is what happens when an organization chooses NOT to engage; when they decide to play it “safe.”

When I was training as a scientist (I was a geologist not all that long ago), I learned about the null hypothesis.

Basically, it’s a way of constructing a hypothesis that says Let’s assume nothing happens. And then you go about trying to disprove that hypothesis.

So the null hypothesis here is: If we don’t get involved in social media, we will at least be no worse off than we were before.

When in doubt, do nothing. Worst case scenario: nothing happens.

But is that really the worst case scenario?

It’s easy to see why you might be tempted to think this way. The common objections to social media engagement are well-known, and basically boil down to:

  1. It doesn’t work
  2. It’s risky
  3. I don’t have time for it anyway

But we hardly ever talk about the risks of not getting engaged in social media.

The fact is, there’s a whole lot of people out there using Twitter, blogs, Flickr, Facebook, LinkedIn, Utterz, Seesmic, and all the rest. They’re not just using these platforms because they are cool.

They are using them because they are useful. They use them to talk about everything that we normally talk about in daily life. To ask others’ opinions about what they should buy, watch, use; where they should travel, go to a conference, go to college; what charity they support, who needs donations now, and oh, here’s a link to that Donate Now page.

Do you not wish these people to know about you? Are you too shy to help them learn more about your cause? Too risk-averse to accept their willing donations?

Of course not.

So you risk being invisible. That’s the first risk of not engaging.

The second risk is even more serious. It’s the risk of incurring actual damage by not being around social media.

The most basic level of engagement in social media is Listening (it counts! if you are actively listening, you are in the game – congratulations!). Create a few Google Alerts and get daily updates whenever anyone online mentions your name, your event, your cause. Decide for yourself if and how to respond, but at least you have a sense of what is being said.

If you’re not listening, you’re probably going to think there’s nothing to hear. And that can cause you big problems when you are wrong.

For instance, there is the recent case of a woman who posed as an official voice of ExxonMobil on Twitter. Registering as “Janet at ExxonMobil,” this user started responding to questions from anyone on Twitter who cared to ask, about everything from ExxonMobil’s stance on benefits for same-sex spouses of employees, to the history of the company, to how the company feels about the Valdez oil spill.

In every way, Janet seemed like she was an authentic voice of the company. She even said she was, in so many words. She was not.

Unmasked after just three days (but only after taking in a lot of Twitterers), Janet now seems to have subsided. But ExxonMobil wasn’t the one to find and unmask her. They weren’t listening.  They are very lucky that she was trying to represent their brand in a good light, but even so, several of her messages were off-tone, and undoubtedly would not have been condoned by corporate communications.

As Jeremiah Owyang wrote in his summary on the Janet episode,

Companies must monitor their brand
Brands should be monitoring the discussion and instances of their keywords in social networks –failure to do so results in becoming case studies.

Don’t think your little nonprofit would be a target for this kind of activity? Think again.

But listening (a great first step) will also allow you to hear when somebody praises you on their blog, reports on what a great time they had at your event on Facebook, or openly wonders if they should volunteer for you or for another organization this year.

Wouldn’t it be useful to be nearby when people are talking out loud about you, your field, your competitors, like this? In the most extreme cases, you would know about Janet and be able to respond, refute, or rebut her unauthorized comments before she did any damage to your brand in a public forum.

So the second risk is being unable or too late to prevent damage to your brand.

Finally, there’s the most compelling reason of all. If you’re a nonprofit, you presumably exist because you can do good in this world. Your very presence, and especially your effectiveness in advancing your mission, makes this world a noticeably better place.

The thing is, social media is a part of this world. It’s a part of this world that you can’t reach or access any other way but to be in it. It’s made up of all the same people you care deeply about in the world you already know — your donors, members, constituents. There is no longer a distinct boundary, if there ever was, between that world and this one.

So if the world needs you, be sure to share yourself with as much of that world as you can. Do us all a favor, and get involved. We need you.


3 responses to “ROI: the null hypothesis

  1. Pingback: Laura’s Notebook | Technology for Non-profit Organisations, Social Media and Accessible Website Design » Blog Archive » What happens when an organisation chooses not to engage?

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Well put and bonus points for the geology / scientific reference. ROI can be hard for some orgs to grasp. But the price of invisibility should be something they all quickly understand.

  3. A little late on this one – but adding it to the WeAreMedia section on ROI and Metrics. Thanks again for a great post.

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