The Social Media Tower of Babel

The ability to communicate must be a great threat to the gods.  In Western civilization, the Judao-Christian story of the tower of Babel describes how God finds that “now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” and in order to prevent this, “confounds” the language of the people.  In the study of myths, this is called an etiology or an origin myth – a myth-story that explains why things are the way they are. A cosmogony, or a myth explaining the origin of the universe is one – but etiologies extend to other phenomenon such as the multiplicities of languages.  And many ancient myths share a story providing an explanation of why it is that we can’t all seem to be able to communicate in one language.

Living with a thirteen-year-old boy, I see the creation of new language on a daily basis. Young people have forever been the source of new words and phrases that help them differentiate from their elders and other groups. It isn’t difficult to imagine the parallel world of groups of primates traveling through a savannah, sharing unique grunts with one another to help facilitate the bonding of the group.

In group formation, the forming of dialects plays an important role.  At other times, we’re simply confused. For instance, in discussing Social Media Process and Social Media ROI, there is a great deal of confusion stemming from the fact that not all Social Media is equal.

How a small 4-person company uses social media, and how it is used at an international conglomerate is simply not going to be the same. How social media is going to be used by a manufacturer of ball bearings is going to be different than how it is used in a Madison Avenue marketing agency, or a seller of consumer packaged goods. Some of the differentiators I’m thinking of on the spot include:

  • Small Scale versus Large Scale
  • Consumer versus Business
  • Service versus Product

Consumer-oriented versus B2B is just one aspect of demographics – we could easily break down an organizations customer base in terms of other demographics as well which could have a strong implication in how those businesses use social media. After all, if a core demographic simply isn’t engaged with social, there is going to be less of a compelling argument for the organization to invest there.

Meanwhile, social media professionals make pronouncements. YOU SHOULD get your whole staff on social media; YOU SHOULD be totally involved with social media. And this is true for some industries and organizations.  But for some organizations, it simply isn’t going to happen, nor is it practical.

According to Geoffrey Fowler, writing in the Wall St. Journal yesterday, Sherry Chris, CEO of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, spends about 2 hours a day on social media. This, under a section header called, “The boss should tweet”. A following section is titled, “Empower all employees to participate”.

I’ll be the first to admit, my dream client would be one that came in and asked us to help make those two exhortations come to reality. In many industries, such a client would probably be well ahead of the competition, and blazing that trail would be establishing connections with a customer base that would have long-term value.

The Social Media ROI Pixie Dust

It is one thing for a company like Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate to make the leap to hard core social media engagement – another for a larger organization or an organization that is more business to business. It is a reasonable assumption that the chief marketing officer, the chief executive officer, or the chief financial officer to ask, “will this pay off?”.

And some social media professionals have answered in a way that would suggest that this line of questioning is silly.  Gary Vaynerchuck asked “What’s the ROI of your mother?” Scott Monty, the head of social media for Ford asked, “What’s the ROI of putting on your pants in the morning?” Scott Stratten, author of Unmarketing, stated that every time he hears the phrase “ROI of social media” a unicorn dies.

In other words, this stuff is so powerful, so meaningful; you shouldn’t be trying to make financial sense of it.

Others have tried to move the conversation to another place. Instead of Return on INVESTMENT, let’s discuss Return on CONVERSATION, or Return on ENGAGEMENT. But as Guy Powell, Steven Groves, and Jerry Dimos argue in their new book, ROI of Social Media: How to Improve the Return on Your Social Marketing Investment, these new approaches are NOT ROI. Nor will they move the needle with any CFO I’ve ever met.

Social Media has required and will continue to require evangelism. The old models of business leadership were going to pose some resistance to these new approaches to communication. And Monty, Vaynerchuck, and Stratten are really great social media evangelists.  The problem remains, though, that the evangelical approach does not solve all the questions for all of the different types of businesses.

Evangelism says, “Business, you really need to take social media seriously. It’s going to be a game changer.” And this is true. But social media professionals need to be able to provide better information, better stories, and better models to help explain this importance for the different types and scales of business.

A Social Media ROI Discussion

Besides the book mentioned above, another book on Social Media ROI was released recently, Social Media ROI by Olivier Blanchard. Dag Holmbee of Klurig Analytics has had a strong focus on Social Media ROI pretty much since we started calling it social media, and most recently, even the major consultancies are now offering white papers on ROI in social. And despite the fact that DragonSearch is known for its own Social Media ROI Calculator, I’ve got a hunch that what decision makers is not a series of hard fact justifications, but a discussion  – a discussion in THEIR language, framing the issue so that they can make appropriate assumptions.

We could, for instance, discuss the customer funnel. It doesn’t even have to be the old AIDA funnel of old, but even one of the newer models. At each step of the way, we can discuss what would the value of improving the movement through that funnel 1% be?  For instance, we could discuss the ROI of awareness or advocacy. We could discuss total lifetime value and retention. We could even consider it in terms of risk and risk management – and for this organization, what value is there in risk mitigation? In marketing, we should be discussing the value of social media in terms of its impact on SEO and potential impact on reputation management.

This is pure discussion. This is where we talk about our assumptions, and the assumptions of leaders within this organization. If we frame the topic in this way, we won’t just be evangelizing and we won’t be spreading pixie dust. There is a whole world of organizations that need that discussion and need it badly.

What aspects of this discussion do you think are most needed?

















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9 comments on “The Social Media Tower of Babel

Kat Caverly

Great read Ric. My eyes normally roll back in my head (drool alert) when I read ROI. I am currently reading Gary’s “The Thank You Economy” and his message is all about customer support.

Just yesterday I read Dan Zarrella’s “If it don’t make dollars it don’t make sense” regarding social media. I love Scott’s philosophy (Unmarketing) but it is Vaynerchuck’s “What’s the ROI of you mother?” that gets me ever time.

    Ric Dragon

    Yes, Kat, I was going to mention the drool, but thought it would be impolitic :-)

Dag Holmboe

Ric, great article.

You are dead on that social media ROI is different for different markets and different people. The reason is simply that people see value from social media differently and it all depends on the goals you have with social media. For instance, your social media campaign might use short-term sales as the primary goal. Thus, your social media return is based on sales and you calculate your social media ROI based on the dollar value of sales.

My campaign might use consumer feedback as a goal and therefore my social media return is consumer insight. I can estimate a value of the consumer insight and thereby calculate my social media ROI.

In addition, ROI (return on investment) is a measure of the efficiency of a campaign so to use ROI as something different, it a sign that the concept of ROI is not fully understood. In the example above, you and I can compare our campaigns based on the ROI (apples to apples) to see which campaign is the most efficient campaign. And our CFO would loves to death if we gave him/her ROI numbers :-)

Again, great article that talk about social media ROI as what it really is.

    Ric Dragon

    Dag, thanks so much for the feedback. Of course, you’re a pioneer in thinking around this subject, so it’s even more appreciated.

Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu


Great points. I feel that the main Babel of social media marketing is that social media marketing works (that is, functions most effectively) through Gift Economy logic – you know my thoughts on that. So it is not so much a thousand tongues, but rather two fundamentally contrasted languages, two cultures, two economies attempting to talk to each other.

What is interesting about your ROI talk is that this is essentially “translating” Gift Economy SoMe conditions into Market Economy language. A huge amount can get lost in this translation, but such a translation is perhaps imperative. It allows the more hardened, those more entrenched in Market culture to have something to orient themselves to, productively.

This does not change that perhaps the greatest gift of Social Media is the change in culture it is bringing to Market thinking. There are real shifts in strategy and customer alignment that need to come from the change in perspective that SoMe brings. But Market translations can only help in building the bridge between these two worlds.

Thanks for the great post.



    Couldnl’t agree more – I don’t think quite such a shift has occured since Wanamaker – a shift to passion based marketing. But that’s another topic!

Stan Phelps

Great post Ric. Some blog skin deep, you’ve went down to the bone.

A few thoughts to share:

– Add Jeff Hayzlett’s quip to the ROI question. He says, “What’s the Return on Investment? I’ll tell you the return on investment when you can tell me what the return is on ignoring”.

– Here’s where I’d like to see ROI focused on for social media. Retention, lifetime value and referrals. My opinion is that social media is most effective once you are already through the funnel.

– The me in ‘social media’ is not about you the company, it’s about me the consumer. I really don’t want to hear from you the company unless I engage you. Your role as the business is to give me something to talk, tweet, blog, Yelp or post to Facebook about.

I look forward to following the dialogue.


‘The longest and hardest 9 inches in marketing is the distance between the brain and the heart of your customer’



    Hi Stan;
    Thanks for the addition to my collection of SoMe ROI quips! Hayzlett’s at least points to the realm of risk mitigation – another topic that the C-Suite can definitely connect with. I agree that outside of awareness, retention, CLV, and advocacy are powerful. I’ve only started with awareness, I suppose, because in a way, it’s the beginning of the cycle, eh?

    Thanks for the thoughtful response!

Guy Powell


The Tower of Babel is an interesting metaphor, when thinking about the fire hose of messages generated in social media.

Good point about differentiating the different types of users of social media.  Sounds a lot like segmentation…

Ric, also glad you were able to move the discussion forward.  There is a lot of work to be done with ROI as it relates to social media.  The books and posts that will become available in the near future will build on the groundwork laid by our book, ROI of Social Media and Blancharde’s book Social Media ROI (sorry, but I just killed two more unicorns).  Looking forward to seeing how this plays out.

I do want to apologize to all the unicorn lovers, but as a marketing measurement expert somebody’s go to do it.