What’s the return on that investment?

Note: This is my fourth in a series of blog posts on Vancity’s social media journey over the last five years. Both Ron Shevlin and The Financial Brand have written very good posts recently on the topic of social media ROI, so I thought I’d join in.

I find it interesting and troubling that so much of the focus on social media has been on ROI. I am starting to think that this whole discussion thread is very close to pointless.

[I love this cartoon by the amazing and brilliant Rob Cottingham.]

Some people have successfully measured the ROI of social media and proven its value. Great. And there are some case studies, especially for larger companies with expensive and complex customer service channels, where the ROI is pretty good. But for the rest of us, honestly, it’s a stretch at best.

Truthfully, even if you do measure the ROI of social media, it likely pales in comparison with the ROI of other digital tactics such as email, multivariate testing, usability enhancements or search engine marketing. In most cases, social media is a bad bet from a purely ROI perspective. More relevant is the fact that most organizations aren’t sophisticated enough to measure the ROI of it anyway.

I believe that the reason many companies have gotten involved with social media is that some people in Marketing and Communications departments personally like Facebook and Twitter and then introduce these tools into their organizations. If the culture of the organization isn’t permissive, progressive or ready, that can be an abdication of professional responsibility – to put one’s own preferences and proclivities ahead of the needs and abilities of the company who hired them.

The other danger with this approach is that it starts from the middle. Social media is the kind of activity that the whole organization needs to get behind. If a handful of people in Marketing or Communications “own” it, and the C-suite isn’t behind it (or aware of it), it’s going nowhere fast.

As an aside, my take on ROI for successful business casing is that there needs to be a definable and beneficial financial return balanced with a strong alignment with the mission, vision and values of the organization. In other words, it’s usually about hearts and minds. Rarely can a business case achieve a perfect balance of both, and when it can it’s an amazing opportunity. When it comes to proving the value of social media, it’s about furthering the organization’s vision and brand, more than the financial return.

So if you’re sick of the same old Comcast and Best Buy case studies trying to rationalize social media, you’re not alone. Instead, connect your social media strategy inextricably to the ways you already engage community.

At Vancity, the accountability for social media rests within the Digital & Community Engagement department I manage, the same team that manages our community project grants, sponsorships and events. These are activities where the expectation of ROI is softer or even absent because these initiatives relate to the deeper purpose or, dare I say, mission of the organization. The way I see it, most traditional companies’ sole mission is to maximize profit for shareholders, and arguably not directly related to their customers, making social media a harder fit for traditional companies to embrace. (I know some will disagree with this, but my opinion is that companies focus on customer service merely to increase shareholder value – I prefer the co-operative model where the customers themselves are the shareholders.)


My advice is: don’t get caught in the ROI trap. Align strategically with areas where your organization currently engages its customers, members or stakeholders – make a real link with the mission of the organization. If you have to prove true ROI, if your organization requires it for everything you do, change focus to email marketing or some other digital marketing tactic and please the organization that way. Otherwise, I would suggest that you’re not being true to the nature and culture of your organization and therefore can’t authentically leverage social media anyway. Or you’re simply at the wrong organization and need to be at a company where you can do what you think is right, while also doing what is right for the company that hired you and signs your paycheques.

Again, thanks to Rob Cottingham for letting me use his Noise to Signal cartoons in my post.

Changing everything.

As I wrote in my last two posts, I’m exploring this journey of engagement I’ve been on during my five-plus years at Vancity. My role, as I see it, is to illuminate the network of staff members, personal members, business members and not for profit, social enterprise and co-operative members that make up Vancity.

Reimagining ChangeEverything.

A big advancement we’ve recently made is a total reimagining of ChangeEverything.ca. This social network – that we launched way back in 2006 when Facebook required a .edu email address and Twitter didn’t yet exist – had one big problem: Vancity, a major contributor to social change in our area, was at complete arms length from the activity on the site. Back in 2006 this made perfect sense, very few people in any given organization could comfortably and confidently engage via social media. Most people just weren’t there. For the last couple of years Kate and I have been struggling with what to do about that, how to bring the site closer to what Vancity does.

The HubA couple of weeks back, we relaunched ChangeEverything as The Hub. It’s a brand new community, and is in the early stages of growing (so forgive it for being a little sparse as we soft launch).

Why call it The Hub? A hub has something at its core, a focal point around which activity revolves, and in our case that centre is Vancity. There is an illustration on the focus page of the site that explains the concept, and what we’re trying to achieve.

The Hub is where Vancity can illuminate the network of staff members, individual members, business members and not for profit members that make up what Vancity is. We need to break down the silos and walls, and get real honest conversation going about our well-being. Financial well-being, social well-being and environmental well-being. That’s what Vancity is all about – that’s our vision and our brand.

Where ChangeEverything came from.

The concept of ChangeEverything sprang from a Vancity marketing campaign from 2006 (you can change everything if you change where you bank). It isn’t language we use internally or externally anymore, and as a result the concept of the site doesn’t connect to anything else we’re doing. Despite all its success, staff and members have found the purpose of the site confusing, and engagement among staff on ChangeEverything has been very low.

Perhaps most importantly, the very notion of ChangeEverything is not our MO – we’re not about changing everything. We’re pretty committed to some key areas of focus where we believe change is required, and we feel we can provide authentic leadership as an organization.

One feature of the site that I’m most proud of is the impact map. This is one of the key places where we can answer the question many of our members have: I know Vancity does amazing things to support community, but what are you doing in my community? The impact map showcases grants we’ve given, and will expand to other success stories, like our impact lending and community investments. It’s a way of bringing what we do to life, and I’m pretty excited about it.

Where The Hub is going.

The goal (and the site is nascent so this isn’t obvious yet) is to have employees from different areas of Vancity (different branches, the Community Investment division, our Community Foundation, etc…) all becoming organizations on The Hub to represent what they do in a natural, human way. These employees, under the Vancity umbrella, can interact and engage with our individual members and the public around what Vancity is doing in community and what we do with our members’ precious assets. Business members and individual members can interact – perhaps businesses can offer exclusive deals to their fellow members to encourage shopping local, which is good for the regional economy. Not for profit members can reach out to the network to share stories of the brave work they’re doing and their outcomes and impacts in our communities. Perhaps they can find willing donors and volunteers from among our staff and membership. It’s a powerful network that I believe, with connections and stories, can be transformative. Vancity is a catalyst for this kind of activity – this is why a local credit union invests so much back into communities, for the holistic well-being of our membership.

The original ChangeEverything, from a marketing perspective, was a brand play. It extended our brand in a way that reflected our differentiation. The aim is that The Hub will be about the business. As we move forward with key impact areas where we lend and invest to create community impact in a profitable way (such as local, organic food and energy efficiency) this site can help make us the place to come to for these kinds of deals. It will increase word of mouth among businesses and organizations looking for financing in these growth areas that we’ve identified as good for the community and good for the company, as well as individuals interested in supporting community impact directly through their investments and credit.

This is the reason why our approach to social media – and especially Twitter – is so important. We need to accelerate the emerging culture among employees who are ready to jump onto social media on behalf of Vancity. If The Hub is to come to life, we need a cross-section of our staff out there and engaging, just like they do in real life, attending events and getting involved with the community.

So check out The Hub. I hope, over time, it can help people experience what Vancity is, rather than just being told what it is, and ultimately illuminate the network that exists between and among our staff and our members.

Matching the inside and the outside.

As I explored in my last my last post, I believe Vancity can use social media to create linkages between and among our staff and our members. Staff is a critical part of that equation, and not a community people talk about a lot when they talk about social media.

Vancity has nothing to say, its employees do. When you walk into a branch or call our call centre you don’t talk to Vancity, you talk to a real human being, so why not replicate that experience using social media? Make it an online extension of the kinds of conversations staff and members are already having.

My goal is to illuminate the network of staff, personal members, business members and not for profit, social enterprise and co-operative members that makes up Vancity – a network which is hardly utilized or even exposed. I consider it a central part of my new role and my department’s work to illuminate these networks, connecting the people who are part of Vancity to each other to create value and enhance well-being. Twitter is an amazing way to do that, and yet I don’t see many organizations using social media in this obvious way. There is risk involved, sure, but the risk is very small compared to the huge risks any financial institution encounters on a daily basis as part of its standard operating practices (bank robberies, anyone?).

Staff is your core community.

On Vancity’s journey using digital tools to mirror, extend and accelerate the way we engage communities offline, one factor that can’t be overstated, and one that I don’t hear others speak to much at all, is the utilization of internal social media within the organization.

In the Digital & Community Engagement department I lead, we’re fortunate that social media lives in the same department as our Intranet. As a result, when we introduced internal social media tools for staff with the relaunch of our Intranet in late 2010, we could focus on community building among staff within that project.

Our employees are a key community – they are instrumental in engaging our members and the public in what Vancity is doing. If they’re connected to what we’re doing, they can include this key differentiator in every member interaction. The new internal social media tools unleashed a culture and sense of community that had been there, but staff didn’t have the tools to engage on a large scale.

If your organization is struggling with social media, starting with internal social technology for staff is like installing training wheels. One advantage is that there is no anonymity (and I believe that internally, unlike out in the wild, every comment and post should be transparently traceable back to the employee who made it). It also acclimatizes the employees and the culture to this new mode of communicating. People can see it’s not all that scary and people are, for the most part, trustworthy and decent.

Build a culture of trust.

We made a smart choice in not governing the hell out of these tools, and instead chose to treat our staff like adults, and trust them not to violate simple rules of community engagement. We treat violations as one-offs and deal with them individually, rather than govern the life out of the entire community. In an earlier post, my friend Jeremy Osborn left a comment about whether it’s easier at a social-purpose business, and this may be true. If a great percentage of your employees are at the company for very similar reasons and personally align to the mission of the organization, I think it helps create trust that staff will do the right thing. It creates a uniformity of purpose that, I believe, requires less policing.

This goes back to a central principle I learned from the brilliant Rob Cottingham back in 2006 when we were designing ChangeEverything: Be a concierge, not a security guard. Focus on encouraging the kind of dialogue and engagement you DO want instead of focusing on shutting down the kind of activity you don’t want (and, in fact, may rarely get). It’s amazing how many times we’ve referred back to this precept over the last five years. Very, very useful because it’s easy to catch yourself building a wall when you meant to be building a bridge.

Organizationally, where the social media and Intranet functions are placed is far more valuable than many organizations realize. Alignment between these two areas is, I believe, critical to mutual success. The launch of internal social media is an incredibly important part of any company’s journey to unleashing engagement, because the more you trust people to behave responsibly, the better off you’ll be. And that is a central tenant of meaningful engagement.

“All social media is inherently authentic” is a quote I like a lot. To be authentic in today’s world, you have to match the inside with the outside.