Social Media and Second-hand ROI: How it really works

Ian Lurie


This is partly in answer to several internet marketing questions folks have asked. It’s also an extension of an op-ed piece Ric Anderson wrote (with some quotes from me – I’m still tickled about that) about Google’s Topeka gag.

Everyone asks The Question: How do I calculate the ROI from social media?
That used to make me insane. ‘Used to’ meaning ‘February’. But then I realized something: Social media doesn’t necessarily generate ’first hand‘ ROI: You may not get sales from huge social media exposure (or from any other media exposure, for that matter).
In fact, most businesses won’t see a dime from media exposure, online or off.
You have to take that exposure and do something with it. Just got 10,000 followers on Twitter? Great! But you won’t earn any money from the mere fact that you have 10,000 followers. You need to give them a reason to upgrade from passive followers to customers.

It’s not me, it’s you

If you set up a Facebook Fan page or group page or community page (see Lisa Barone’s article for the full story on that bit of silliness) and build a fan base of 1000-10000 people, cool! Good for you! But, if you then let it sit there for three months, untouched, do not come whining to me that social media doesn’t generate ROI. You may not generate ROI, but social media is just fine, thank you.
The problem – your problem – is that you treated your social media audience as if they were standing in your store, or your office, or visiting your web site, the moment they became a fan or follower. That’s waaaay off.
Your social media audience is very similar to the audience you get if a newspaper writes about you, or a TV show mentions your product. They know who you are now. They’re waiting to hear from you – they’re waiting for you to bring them from the outer circle of people-who-are-lurking to the inner circle of people-who-are-buying.
Your move.

How to reap second-hand ROI

There are some very specific things you can do to draw that audience in:


If you get a bunch of followers on Twitter, monitor them. Watch for when they ask questions about your specific product or about your industry. Also watch for other times you can politely interject and help someone out.
On Facebook, do the same. If they’re bloggers, watch for relevant posts and leave comments. If the initial exposure was a blog post, monitor the comments.
You can use Google Reader to do this, by the way.


Give people useful, thoughtful answers to their questions.
For example, maybe you see a follower Tweet “Man, I keep getting flat tires on my bicycle.”
You could reply “Hey! Buy this kevlar-belted road tire on my site!” and spam a link to them. Or, you could say “Here’s a review of 4 kevlar-belted road tires that might help” and link to it. If you wrote the review, even better. If you didn’t, that’s OK.
Don’t just say “Buy my product. That’s the answer.” Answer their question. If someone’s questioning your product, don’t get defensive. Ignore them, or give a factual reply.


Make sure your followers and fans know you appreciate their attention. Give ’em a discount, or an exclusive early look. Or just give ’em great information. Whatever you give them, make sure it’s clear this is just for them.

Offer the upgrade

Moving from social media audience member to customer will cost me money. You need to show me why that’s an upgrade, and that the value is in line with the cost.
You’ve got 1000 new followers for your membership-only content site. They’re happy just hearing from you in their Facebook in-box. How can you get them to pay your subscription fee?
You’re going to need to demonstrate how much more information they can get by becoming a paying subscriber: Give them a free link to that one page on your site that answers the question they just asked. Now let them know they can get access to that great information any time for $7/month.
Or, let everyone in your social media audience have free access to one layer of content, but not the rest. Let them decide whether to upgrade on their own. You can occasionally, politely ‘poke’ them about it, too.
Here’s another example: Your 1000 followers know about your great bicycle shop. They know they can order online, too. But they don’t see the value in doing that, when they can get the same tire for $.59 less from their store on the corner.
OK, but bicycles that see regular use need periodic tune-ups, new tires, etc.. What if you let them pay a fee to receive the necessary replacement parts and a nice guide to doing their own tune-ups on a schedule? They can save the labor cost, and tick one thing off their to do list, since you’re handling the reminders. That’s an upgrade.

Topeka, for a second

Ric’s article talks about Topeka, KS, and whether they can benefit from the exposure they received when Google became Topeka for a day. The answer is, no, they won’t see one shred of direct benefit.
But they do have a new audience. They can definitely do something with it: Show businesses that are considering relocation how this is part of a larger plan to make Topeka a good spot for them. Start publicizing new broadband initiatives in the city, or plans to update infrastructure. Then offer incentives – like discounts for gigabit service when it starts – for companies/individuals who move there now.

Just don’t be passive

Whatever you do, don’t be passive. Even if your on- or offline media exposure does generate sales, there’s a lot more where that came from. You need to listen, answer, reward and then upgrade for each member of your new audience.
Whew. That was a long post. I’m done.

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Ian Lurie
CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at

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  1. Long, but very useful.
    “You may not generate ROI, but social media is just fine, thank you.” – Owch, the truth hurts.

  2. I enjoyed the post Ian. It’s unbelievable the pace at which Twitter is growing. Businesses know that they should use Twitter, but don’t know how to use it. It’s somewhat of a mystery how to use Twitter because it seems actually quite silly at first until you begin using it. Then once you realize how it really is the ultimate conversation tool, that’s when you start to get it.

  3. Every business that sets up a Twitter profile & Facebook page should read this post! You are explaining the importance of online engagement while also sharing some creative marketing approaches. Well said, Ian!
    And that skeleton? LOL I followed one like him on the Death Ride, female with sports bra on the back of a tandem. 🙂
    OK … I’m off to find some kevlar-belted road tires! Any bike shop out there listening? Shout out @lookadoo & I’ll consider your goods. Seriously in the market.

  4. Hi Ian,
    I am in the process of learning/ taking myself through the ins and outs of seo. For almost a year I though I knew everything about seo but recently realised I know nothing yet I have been claiming I do:-). I am currently doing a course online and coming across your blog is an added advantage. Social media (Twitter for example)is definitely something I’ve been trying to get a grasp on in terms of ROI. Your article gives very good insight on that. Thanks! I’m definitley becoming an avid follower of your blog.

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