Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and I’ve been watching the time zones wake up in the US and start Twittering about the various service projects and community building activities everyone is participating in.  It’s been heart warming and also frustrating – I wish I could be so many places at once!  I can only be in one place, though – but I can start a conversation that goes many places.  Here goes…

When I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., the first thing that comes to mind is community: building it, empowering it, moving it to action, and nurturing it.  When I think of those four focus areas for community, I do NOT think of the number of fans on a Facebook page, the number of people on an email list, or even the ranking of a Google search results page.

Earlier today I followed a link from Twitter to an archived guest post on Pamela’s Grantwriting Blog by Aerin Guy.  To be honest, I often skim, and when the title of the post mentioned 15 Social Media Resolutions, I figured I’d just skip to the list 🙂

That’s where I found Aerin’s resolution to “consciously rephrase Return on Investment with Return on Engagement.”

Is ROI limiting our community impact?

As I explained above with the example of MLK, Jr.’s focus on community, the idea of ROI doesn’t make sense.  Then or now.  If we are after impact, we have to reevaluate the way we approach evaluation!

Look at this way:

  • ROI asks how many Facebook fans you have; ROE asks how many people are “liking,” commenting and sharing your Facebook content.
  • ROI asks how many staff and how many hours; ROE asks how many posts, updates, replies or individual responses.
  • ROI asks how many email subscribers; ROE asks how many people send you emails.
  • ROI asks how much money you raise; ROE asks how many people are campaigning on your behalf.
  • You can go on and on.

We can’t make change without community, whether locally or globally.  And in order to start making change and empowering our communities, we need to approach our work with a frame that’s focused on the same attributes as our goals (engagement) and not simply on the traditional business frames (costs).

What do you think?

And to close with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

Return on Engagement for your Community
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  • Amy – Beautiful! and right to the point as always. What a wonderful tribute to the work of Martin Luther King if we all (re)focus ourselves on the important work of building community. And it is work, although joyful work, that takes a major commitment of our effort. (And community is one of my 3 words a la @chrisbrogan & @kanter this year! 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Bonnie! Do you have any examples from your work of organizations successfully changing the way they measure or evaluate their engagement? Would love to hear if you do!

      Thanks again

  • Moving quickly today, but one example that comes to mind is ActionAid International. They moved their HQ to South Africa from the UK in part to be closer to/engage with the communities they most focus on, and have placed a major focus on shared learning among all of their community of stakeholders. Here is an example of how that plays out with a practical manual

    • Bonnie – Thank you so much for sharing the case study! Looking forward to what others share/think.

  • Very insightful Amy, and similar to the advice I give my clients. While ROI is an important business tool, companies must also think about lifetime value when evaluating customer relationships.

    In many respects it mirrors the engagement idea in that your most loyal customers are those who you’ve built strong relationships with, that you’ve brought into your corporate community and interact with on a regular basis.

    The same holds true in the world of social media…thanks for the timely reminder on Martin Luther King Day!

    • Thanks for joining in, Global Patriot! I’ll ask you the same question I posed to Bonnie: do you have any examples you could share of organizations changing the way they view or value engagement over investment?

      I also like the idea of “regular” – it isn’t just important messages to/with community members, it’s regular messages and conversations.

      Thanks again

  • Amy, great post! I’ve heard the phrase “Return on Engagement” many times by social media mavens, but I never fully had a grasp on it. Thanks for breaking it down! This will help me at my own non-profit organization.

    • Hi Andy-

      Thanks for your message – would love to hear what organization you work for and what kinds of projects you’re working on there. I think case studies always help drive change and understanding so if you have any to share, please do!

      Thanks again

  • ROI is about dollars and cents and is the lingo used by the C-suite…the same folks you require for buy-in. ROI is not the be-all end-all in community building or nurturing, but measurable objectives should be tied to ROI. And I am not talking about number of hits or followers. You can measure engagement that ultimately leads to the end goal of a transaction of some sort with your community members. There is room for both ROI and ROE, but ROI trumps all.

    • Hi Lauren-

      Thanks so much for your comment! I know that not all executives or staffs of social impact organizations use ROI as the lingo or mindset. I’ve worked with them, and know others have, too. This post wasn’t intended to say “don’t measure” – but I do not believe that “investment” is a generically better frame than “engagement.”

      I think that as I’ve described it in the post, ROE still builds on measurable metrics. They are just different metrics. You can still measure the number of times others share your content or connect with your organization online vs the number of people you have on a list. Both are measureable and trackable, but the first gives you an idea of the engagement you’ve created as well as providing insights about what is working and what isn’t – that you can’t get from simply tracking numbers on lists.

      Especially with Joe’s comment/example of – some times the end point is not a transaction but change.

      Thanks so much again for joining the conversation here – look forward to more!

  • Amy, your post could not have come with better timing (for me, at least!) I’m getting ready to join a climate movement strategy retreat in Vermont in a couple weeks – and am thinking about ways to make the movement’s social media efforts go BIG in the new year. Your focus on engagement sparks a brilliant framework to brainstorm within.

    It’d be amazing if had a half a million ‘fans’ on facebook, but what does it look like to truly support & empower a few dozen community champions who co-create a welcome space, contribute to the conversation, and can spread those conversations, news, and action alerts to their networks and their networks’ networks, and so on.

    Your post, like so many of your writings, invites to us to break out of comfort zones and think of ways to really build community. Thanks so much for this!

    • Joe – I’m so happy to contribute in any way to your thinking, rethinking and exploring heading into the retreat!

      I think your example below rings very true for the aims of 350 but also to many other organizations: leveraging social media tools to actually engage and then network the engagement or multiply your impact by focusing on ways that your engagement can then be refueled by champions within your community.

      As I explained in my response to Lauren, this was certainly not a post claiming that there is not investment, but simply the investment frame needs to be changed.

      I hope you will keep me and the other readers here updated about your thinking and ideas from your own strategic explorations as well as the 350 retreat.

      thanks again for joining in!

  • Thank you for this post!

    As a small nonprofit, we are very focused on measuring everything we do. It has been difficult to measure the ROI on our social media efforts, but I find the concept of ROE quite fascinating and appropriate for what we do.

    Thanks again!

    • Hi Javier-

      Thanks so much for your comment and joining the conversation here! I would love to hear from you any follow up – if your team discuss the ideas of ROE or adjust any of your measurement areas based on the concept. I’m sure other readers would enjoy hearing about it as well.

      Hope I have at least started a conversation you can continue with your team.

      Thanks again

  • Thanks for taking this discussion to the next level Amy.

    ROI for social media is difficult to measure. In many ways, the same PR/communications work that I used to engage in 10 years ago for small organizations – making contact with all local press and community organizations – wasn’t necessarily measurable. I saw it as an extension of stewardship and keeping the community aware.

    In many ways social media can also be seen as part of stewardship. I’d love to hear more of your ideas on how we can measure how well our efforts are engaging others.

    • Hi Pamela-

      Thanks so much for joining in! I LOVE your word “stewardship” – as soon as I read it I had a light bulb moment and then you went to focus on the term; perfect!

      I really do think that stewardship is a great frame to use in measurement. For example, I separate my areas of work into categories. These categories are then used to separate weekly areas of focus (try not use the “To Do” language) as well as for measuring my work. For me, as the Global Community Development Manager at NetSquared, the categories include:

      – Community
      – Products
      – Development
      – Operations

      I think that Stewardship could actually be added to that list to separate some of the activities I currently include in my generic Community bucket. If I did do that, I would associate things that are me giving out as Stewardship and things that are me helping others give as Community – just as an example of how both could be used.

      I hope that helps shed some light on it. Thank you so much for pushing the conversation forward! I know I’ll be blogging about this topic again – there’s so much to think about!

  • Amy, I agree with you and lots of the posts! ROE does indeed make sense in the world we now live in.

    Our next challenge is to convince the purse-string holders, financiers, funders and Boards that this is the case. Until the money-men start to look at broader metrics, then I fear it actually doesn’t matter how much sense this viewpoint makes.

    I’m yet to see a Board sign-off any significant investment based on how many positive comments are made on a Facebook fan page. This is simply because its new and they don’t see a direct relationship to the bottom line.

    This therefore is the real challenge for people brighter than me… how to make ROE directly related to the bottom line in order to transition decision-makers away from over-reliance on perhaps out-dated metrics.

    • Hi Kevin-

      Thanks so much for your comment and for joining in the conversation here. I think you’ve answered your own question in a way! I agree that we need to change the mind of funders and our own boards to value evaluation of engagement – but it is our job to show how engagement (comments vs friends, etc.) actually does correlate to reaching our vision and supporting mission-driven projects.

      After all, funders, boards, directors, etc. aren’t necessarily concerned with the specific metric, per se, but are certainly concerned with delivering on goals, meeting impact targets (changing the community, helping people, making a difference – still not facebook friend numbers!), and working towards their mission.

      I’m looking forward to exploring the topic more and hope you’ll continue to join in and share your thoughts.

      Thanks again

  • Amy – Nice to see that this blog has generated so much continuing conversation. You’ve obviously picked up on something that’s been percolating for many of us. I agree with your comment that [as change agents] “it is our job to show how engagement (comments vs friends, etc.) actually does correlate to reaching our vision and supporting mission-driven projects”. Change will come about when skeptical leaders see demonstrated results from doing things differently.

    • Hi Bonnie – I think you’ve touched on something really integral here: it isn’t so much about the metrics (duh?) themselves but the fact that focusing on the “right” metrics can mean we approach our work in a new, better, more change-focused way. And that leads to demonstrating the results we really want.

      Thanks for sharing that nuance!

  • I believe it’s modeling the change we want to be & the power of a shared (community engagement) process. The measurements should just be the tools that help us to bring about change, not as so often seen as an outcome themselves. And of course more intangible outcomes will always be a challenge to measure. But back to your original thesis, just because something can not be easily measured as money (return on investment), or in other easily quantifiable ways, does not make it a less valuable return on investment, and may in fact may it a more valuable one.

    • Thanks for contributing to making this such a rich discussion, Bonnie!

      Your comment, bringing things full circle in a way, also makes me think about the way that we tell the story that, “just because something can not be easily measured as money (return on investment), or in other easily quantifiable ways, does not make it a less valuable return on investment, and may in fact make it a more valuable one.”

      What tools, methods, processes, strategies are we using in our work to tell the stories of the hard-to-define returns on our investment/engagement? We might not be able to quantify all of those metrics or evaluation areas, but we can showcase the effects through storytelling.

      Sure this is at least one more full blog post just in itself, so I’ll stew on it a bit and dive in soon.

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