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For many, social ROI means one thing and one thing only: money in, money out. But if all your social measurements are cash-driven, you're missing the big picture. Despite this, ROI advocates will often argue that everything in social demands a dollar value (or some equivalent). This might make sense from the marketing side, but it doesn’t from the public-relations (PR) side.

When it comes to PR, some argue that social ROI is measurable by advertising value equivalency (AVE), but the reality is that much of social lacks cash (or tuition) value; instead, it's part of the framework towards a greater university goal. 

Take fonts, for example, which are essential to the goal of selling books. But how is monetary ROI traced back to the choice of Baskerville over Garamond? Or graduation ceremonies? Show me the ROI—an exact figure—that's generated by a $100K commencement speaker. 

Both examples yield ROI, just not the dollar-and-cents kind. It's the same for social PR. Social PR doesn't churn out "return" like a tuition ATM. Instead, it slowly ticks within the greater machine, orientating your university toward greater value. As explained by social media management company Lyfe Marketing: "Social media ROI typically... includes other details like follower growth, engagement, and brand awareness.... After all, value cannot always be calculated simply in dollars and cents. Your social media investment just might be paying off whether or not you see a direct, immediate increase in revenue."

ROI Can Be Dollars; It Can Also Be Data

The first step in measuring social ROI is loosening ROI's monetary grip. Jason Falls offers a good explanation for why traditional ROI doesn’t make sense: "The core reason social media programs are successful is because they're about people, not money. Look at the social media buzzwords—community, conversation, dialog, sharing.” These buzzwords remind us that human interaction, not monetary transaction, comprises the core of social media. Consequently, social ROI can’t be correctly measured if every social interaction is monetized and thereby dehumanized. 

We should still measure social ROI, but first, we have to trash the one-size-fits-all mentality. Instead of starting at one end of the ROI spectrum, start in the middle and then decide which way to go: people or sales. If a monetary connection (i.e., link tracking, RFIs, ad campaigns, etc.) can be made, then by all means, make it. But measuring all your social efforts by a singular and unyielding "return of" is akin to measuring mileage with a ruler. You can attempt to measure mileage in inches, but the mere attempt won’t transform a ruler into a proper measuring stick. 

Transforming Social Actions into Actionable Numbers 

Social ROI shifts when your measuring stick is "people centric" (one side of the ROI spectrum) as opposed to "sales centric" (the opposite side of the ROI spectrum). People-centric social, as explained by Brent Csutoras, offers long-term value that can be difficult to measure. For example, how do you directly link university financials to increased student loyalty? Student referrals? Student influence? Student knowledge? 

You can't. And if you try, you're an illusionist. 

For social PR, honest, factual, tangible ROI lives and dies by measured outcomes. But which outcomes should your university measure? Don’t get angry, but I’m going to point your measurements toward something contentious—vanity metrics. 

Vanity Metrics (Despite the Naysayers) Are Valuable Metrics

Search “vanity metrics,” and you’ll unearth a laundry list of loathing. The naysayers ridicule clicks, views, and likes, branding them “easy” or “irrelevant.” But because we’re talking PR and not marketing, these criticisms lack value. 

The more valuable insight comes from Daniel Hochuli. Hochuli,writing for Content Marketing Institute, said this about vanity metrics: “[V]anity metrics such as impressions, ‘likes,’ and traffic are not useless; quite the contrary. The value of a vanity metric is in measuring non-transactional marketing goals (such as brand awareness, sentiment, and share of voice) as well as to optimize campaigns and troubleshoot marketing problems [emphasis added].” 

These non-transactional goals (as opposed to business goals) mirror the relational goals of a social PR campaign. Hochuli notes that social efforts strengthen brand equity and customer relationships over time. These long-term results—generated through creative and strategic content—can be evaluated with vanity metrics. 

ROI: You Can’t Ditch It, But You Can Redefine It 

Hochuli, while championing vanity metrics, goes on to say that these metrics—impressions, clicks, shares—should not be tied to ROI. It’s a nice thought, but it’s wishful thinking. ROI is a tenacious acronym, and as British author C.S. Woolley said, “You can't take over the world without a good acronym.” 

ROI has taken over the social media world. Consequently, it’s too late to dislodge ROI from social media. But dislodging fiscal dogma from social media ROI, that’s a battle we can still win. 

Travis Burchart is a communications and social media specialist at Oral Roberts University.