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This article is part of a series on social media success.

So you’ve got a decent handle on listening and your ‘fans’ and followers are interested in what you have to say.  Then the dreaded ROI (return on investment) phrase starts coming up from management.  Sale numbers that have a direct line back to social media output is demanded.  Just when you thought things were humming along, you’re told to PROVE your time and their money have brought a significant increase in the bottom line.  Before we go any further, one question needs to be answered.

What’s the ROI of your telephone?

Your phone is a critical tool to communicate and listen, just like social media is a tool.  Who ever said that social media is a direct pipeline of prime leads for your sales team?  Twitter isn’t a fat database of people sitting around waiting for you to pitch to them.  Facebook is not an e-commerce site.  Yes, you can make money from social channels (Dell claims $3 million in sales from Twitter alone).  When planning your entry into social media, items like ROI need to be addressed early and revisited often.  On the other hand, we are not saying that efforts in social media shouldn’t earn money.  How you earn (or save) money for your company should always be taken into account, but sometimes items like brand awareness, employee retention, idea generation, or customer satisfaction don’t have hard numbers or formulas to follow.

So how do you make money from social media?  It depends on why you use social media.  If you are using it as a customer service outreach (Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us is an amazing book on the topic) then not only can you save hard money on the cost of an employee’s time picking up the phone, but the frustration and negative word of mouth so rampant with bad customer experiences.  How much money does it take to win back (assuming you even can) a customer that you’ve lost due to poor service?  How many customers do you loose even before the sale due to weak brand awareness or negative word of mouth?

Utilizing social media for sales generation?  Be there *before* the sale.  Offer help even if it means suggesting a competitor’s product.  Ask questions.  Listen.  Do more than sell – do anything but ‘sell’.  Be human.  Be well-rounded and showcase other facets of your company.  Talk about philanthropic efforts.  Provided your product or service is top-notch, all this is building trust between you and “people that may-or-may-not someday purchase your product or refer someone to you that might.”  Funny thing is, social media being structured the way it is, everyone gets to witness your efforts online and draw their own opinions on your company based on interactions they see you have with others.  In the past, the sales transaction took place ‘behind closed doors’ and not many people outside of the people involved saw the process.  That means a very limited amount of people could form their own opinions on your company outside of their own experiences.  Now the entire world can see how you treat customers, before, during, and after the sale.  The idea is scary to a good number of companies that aren’t used to operating in the new social economy.  Those companies that ‘get it’ realize that you could never put a price on (let alone actually pay to have done) the amount of positive exposure you get on social platforms.

How about using social media for talent acquisition? Product research and development?  Competitive analysis? Each group has very unique goals and should have very different strategies to using social media.

Sometimes the goal isn’t even to make money, but to save it.  Pepsi saved $20 million dollars on the 2010 Superbowl and put it towards the year-long Pepsi Refresh Project.  PepsiCo is getting much more than $20 million dollars in media coverage from the move.  Pepsi can afford to take chances like this, but can your company?  Social media is supposed to be a supplement to already successful outreach programs.  Dropping newspaper ads (if they work) to launch a Facebook Fan Page is not a smart business move.  Dumping your email campaigns (if they work) in favor of Twitter is a setup for failure.  Incorporating social media means having to take a good hard look at what you are involved with right now and cutting every single item that operates in the red.  For example, car dealerships may cringe at the thought of abandoning newspaper ads.  Just because your company (or your industry) has always done it a certain way – doesn’t mean you need to keep doing it that way.

End result, if you don’t know what your goals are, you will never reach them, social media endeavor or otherwise.