Growth July 25, 2011 Last updated July 25th, 2011 5,102 Reads share

ROI Is Dead – Vive Le Roi!

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“We have a great offering. We know what we’re doing. We’ll blow them away! Now, how do we promise—and then demonstrate—a fantastic return on investment?” There followed a pregnant pause. I felt it echoing throughout the digital agency/social consultancy universe. No-one seems to have figured this one out yet.

The uncomfortable vacuum was quickly filled as someone launched into an enthusiastic explanation replete with convincingly well-informed, up-to-the-minute expertise, peppered with disclaimers. Do we mention the disclaimers? I suppose we have to, but we’ll play them down. Will our competitors mention them? The meeting presses on with apparent confidence and unspoken doubts. Talk it up.

When scrutinized, many arguments justifying ROI specifically delivered by social media are dead in the water. But it’s The Big One for businesses that are encouraged and cajoled to sink valuable time and/or money (usually both) into a digital tsunami they know is coming because their familiar shoreline has just been sucked out beyond their vision. Some are bewildered, some resistant, some enthusiastic to act but, whatever their feelings, this unfamiliar landscape has them at a disadvantage.

They need to fight back—re-establish control, keep their business as it was but with a few shiny additional social tools to appease the progressives in their company and give them a foothold in the new world. So they use the only weapon they know will work, and the one that they’ll have to answer for at the end of the day. Show me the ROI.

For the client, ROI is king. But is it, really?

Things were simpler in the not-so-olden days. I don’t remember such an aggressive focus on the justification of ROI in years gone by, when we all used more expensive, less accurate and less effective media. Of course, it’s always been important, but is this modern obsession with it more a reflection of intense, complex business pressures that extend far beyond the Internet? Or is it merely driven by a lack of understanding and reluctance to engage with social media?

It seems ironic, in an environment of instant, worldwide communication, that confusion over the media that carry it is so pervasive. We continue to misunderstand each other, which inevitably leads to mistrust not only of each others’ intentions and capabilities but also the tools and techniques on offer.

And I can see why. It’s all moving too fast for anyone to properly absorb, digest or understand. We’re not designed to go from caveman to spaceman in one giant generational leap. We humans need a period of osmosis for a new language to become a natural part of us. As a businessman, I would find it hard to agree to an urgently professed justification of company spending, if it was presented to me in, for instance, Swahili – even if I’d done the complete Linguaphone course.

There’s a break point that’s been identified. Anyone born after 1991 is a ‘digital native’ and is completely at home with the online world. They’ve never known anything else. The trouble is they don’t have the long-term, practical experience or carry the scars of years in business. Anyone born before 1991 has to learn this stuff. And you know what they say about old dogs; well, they’re the ones running the companies.

Adding to the confusion is the plethora of opinions expressed by so-called industry experts—opinions that lurch around like rudderless ships in a storm. And those who are whipping up the storm are so obsessed with manipulation and domination that information deemed to be accurate one day can be turned on its head the next. It’s even said that we are heading towards experiencing a ‘web of one’, whereby search information is so ‘personalized’ that everyone’s search results are constructed through the tunnel vision of machine-generated algorithmic ‘opinions’, delivering nothing but thinly-veiled commercially-pinpointed sales channels. One wonders where that leaves us in terms of true discovery, education and individual learning. Is it The Truman Show from here on in?

So, who’s king now? Well, actually, we are, but we’ve just forgotten this basic fact, in the blur of hyperactivity.

Perhaps we need to take back control, slow it down—decide what we really want from life and how the worldwide web can serve us, rather than constantly scrambling to serve it. It’s far too important to surrender it into the hands of powerful minority interests, be they commercial or political. In business, we maybe need to dig deeper, beneath the shiny, transient surface and focus on the real reasons why we have a business and what we want it to deliver, in human terms. The chances are that the Internet will have a role to play in that, but the true tangible benefits will only be found once the intangible qualities are fully understood. Fortunately, the durability of the human race is testament to the fact that we are superbly equipped to deal with those … when we choose to.


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Lewis Evans

Lewis Evans

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