What is ROI, and who cares?

You’ve heard marketing and business types throw this acronym around like it’s the holy grail of decision-making.

“Yeah, but what ROI can we expect on that?” a supercilious executive is bound to ask.

Earlier in my career, this focus on payoff (ROI stands for “return on investment”) really rankled. I was – and still am – focused on communicating, not marketing. My work is connecting with people, engaging them in conversation, so that they’ll feel a sense of being a part of the organization’s efforts and goals. The idea of slapping a number on those efforts struck me as a little obscene.

We live in a capitalist world, though, and if someone’s going to pay us to do a job, they’re probably going to want to know that their money is well-spent.

I’ve actually come around to thinking of ROI as a good way of checking in on my efforts to make sure they’re directed to the right places… but I’ve also re-interpreted ROI to make the concept work in my non-salesperson brain.

Think about it this way: there are some things you do simply to build community. And there are other things you do for a specific, measurable reason. Both are worthwhile, but sometimes you have to wrap the first up in the second to get people to see that value.

If you’re like me, and you work in community engagement, here are a few hints:

  • Keep track of the things you can measure. Twitter followers, event attendance, “likes” on Facebook, every time someone mentions they saw an ad or appreciated something your organization did.
  • Make sure your work is guided by clear—and formal—goals. Even if they’re not goals you’re going to measure, being able to show your boss that all the time you spent planning event X was to support the organization’s goal of being “a leader in the community” (or whatever) shows that you’re a team player focused on your organization’s needs.
  • Be prepared to lobby for the things you believe are important. Frame your arguments using the language of the organization, and spend time to come up with reasons why the time, effort, and money spent on this thing is critical to the goals of the organization. Throw a few numbers in there, too. Marketers and business leaders love numbers.
  • Be prepared to lose a few battles, and do so graciously. Because no one likes a sore loser.