Social Media … Where’s the ROI?

Virtually every publisher is panning for gold in this modern-day “Wild West.” Here are 5 tips to help you find it.

Originally Published in Publishing Executive Magazine on Aug 1, 2009. It’s interesting for me to look back on this article now.

The explosion in popularity of social media sites, from bookmarking to blogs and social networks, has arguably changed the online publishing game completely. “Just as 10 to 15 years ago, the Web changed the publishing industry … social [media] is creating the same kinds of changes today,” says Shiv Singh, vice president and global social media lead at Razorfish, a global interactive marketing company.

While many publishers have developed viable social media strategies, the majority of magazines still are in a state of experimentation when it comes to social media. “It’s like the ‘Wild West’ out there in terms of new products coming [out] and massive user consumption of things like Twitter,” notes Matt Milner, vice president of social networking for Hearst Magazines and founder of Answerology, a question and answer-based social platform that Hearst recently acquired.

It’s difficult for publishers to justify investing in social media when faced with an economic downturn, rising production and distribution costs, and decreases in print advertising pages. It’s also hard to quantify many of social media’s intangible benefits, such as two-way communication with readers, brand awareness and engagement, and market research. While there are measurable results of social media, including advertising revenue, increased site traffic and incoming links, these benefits are difficult to come by, and do not always produce enough return on investment (ROI) to offset the costs of building and maintaining a social media presence.

“If the economy hadn’t tanked … people would be happy to just sort of dance along, dabbling in [social media] for the next few years without worrying all that much about it, but because the economy did tank … people aren’t willing to put a lot of time or resources behind this effort, unless they’re confident that they’re going to get something back,” comments Adam Sherk, search/PR strategist for Define Search Strategies, an online audience development firm funded by the New York Times Co.

To shed some light on the challenges of implementing a profitable social media strategy, Publishing Executive talked with experts from around the publishing and social media spheres about their forays into social media, its benefits and where they’re finding ROI. Below is a round-up of five tenets for creating ROI-driven social media efforts.

1. Create Advertiser-Friendly Assets

One concrete source of ROI in social media is through site sponsorships and advertising placements. In integrating social media into a publication’s Web site or even creating a new social entity, publishers should not only consider their users’ needs, but also keep potential advertisers in mind. Hearst Magazines developed a social media strategy that combines peer-to-peer networking and a controlled, branded environment to successfully generate new advertising revenue.

When Hearst Magazines acquired Answerology, it built this technology into its existing publication sites. “What we’re doing is setting up different communities [around topics such as] … shelter, house and garden, food, beauty, style, relationships, areas where Hearst already has a consumer magazine, a big bunch of users and advertisers,” Milner says.

In addition to offering peer-to-peer communication, Hearst also incorporates expert voices on its Answerology sites, such as For example, when a teenage girl asks a question about skin care on Seventeen’s site, she can receive answers from her peers, the magazine’s beauty editors, or even a paid sponsor such as Neutrogena (whose comments would be clearly labeled as being from a beauty expert at Neutrogena).

Milner says the expert advice adds value for the readers, increases the community’s credibility, and gives companies the chance to participate in the social media conversation and not just advertise along the margins of the Web page. “The ROI is going to come from the marketers’ saying … ‘We’re willing to pay for a branded environment, and we want engagement with the users,’” Milner states.

2. Allow for Highly Targeted Communities

In building a social media solution, one magazine does not necessarily equal one network. Within your readership, there are multiple subgroups or niches of interests, and it’s most beneficial to users and to your bottom line to allow for highly targeted networks to develop online.

John Byrne, editor-in-chief of, had targeting in mind when developing, a unique Web offering that combines social media and content aggregation. Although both are owned by McGraw-Hill, Business Exchange is a completely separate brand from BusinessWeek.

It allows registered users to create business topics, aggregate content from the Web on those topics, and comment and interact with like-minded community members. In addition to user-supplied content, the site automatically pulls content for each topic from all over the Web including blogs, news outlets and Twitter. With more than 1,500 topics, the communities are extremely targeted. For example, there are dozens of topics related to Apple computers and dozens related to sustainability.

The specific nature of the content is valuable to users, who can stay on top of their varied interests, and it is also highly valuable to advertisers, who are looking for target audiences. “If you were interested in reaching an audience that’s keenly interested in ‘green’ topics, we can literally sell you the 24 topics we have, from solar and wind energy to hybrid cars and biofuel,” Byrne shares.

In the business-to-business arena, developing niche communities is a natural fit. “I think that most b-to-b publishers have really engaged communities already on their Web sites, on their digital events, in their face-to-face events and around their traditional print products,” comments Stephen Wellman, director of community and content for Ziff Davis Enterprise, publisher of eWeek and other technology-focused publications.

Ziff Davis has developed two community-based Web properties, Developer Shed ( and, that attract paid advertisers and sponsors. Both sites aggregate content from several of Ziff Davis’ print and online products, offer highly specific areas of interest, feature fresh on-site social features like forums, blogs and comments, and integrate with outside social networks. Wellman adds that the properties and their integration with Facebook and LinkedIn have also increased ROI by raising awareness for the company’s online e-seminars and virtual tradeshows.

3. Court Search Engines
One of the advantages of building your own social media solution—versus just participating in outside networks such as Facebook—is improved search results. “The catch with social media marketing is that a lot of these sites put a ‘no follow’ attribute on links, and when the [search] engines see that, they don’t follow the link and they don’t pass any link value or SEO value through the link,” Sherk points out.

He says that while a presence on a network like Facebook, or numerous hits on a social bookmarking site like, will generate traffic in secondary links to your site, it will not increase your links with SEO value.

The thinking behind the no-follow attribute is that it will protect a network’s content from users who would manipulate it purely to boost their search results. As social media becomes more ingrained in all aspects of Web use, Sherk believes the engines and social networks might adjust their thinking. “More and more online activity and interaction is happening on social media sites. So if you completely divorce that from your ranking algorithms, you’re missing an important signal as to what people value on the Web today. So I do think that over time, you’ll see it factored in more and more,” Sherk says.

Building solutions like McGraw-Hill’s Business Exchange and Hearst’s Answerology is advantageous because their content, including links, can be optimized for search engines. “We built from scratch, and we built in an era when everyone acknowledges that search is the end-all and be-all way to locate information,” Byrne states.

He says that while there are only 1,500 topics on Business Exchange, more than 2 million of its pages are indexed by Google. “Google is even indexing individual actions by members of the Business Exchange community, so if you commented on a piece, a story or a blog post within the product, it’s going to get indexed, and, of course, your profile’s going to get indexed as well,” says Byrne, whose Business Exchange profile is ranked higher in search results than his Facebook or LinkedIn profiles.

Milner is working on a SEO and SEM analysis, but says the Answerology sections of the Hearst sites index well.

4. Use the Analytics and Metrics Available
Many online experts laud engagement as the new metric for social media, but there is not yet an effective, standard way to measure engagement. “We’re really pushing for engagement, and we’re trying to find new metrics to do that … but I think that’s going to take the industry some time,” says Domenic Venuto, senior vice president and head of media and entertainment for Razorfish.

“There are a lot of things that can be measured right now, some that are more worthwhile than others, but I think that it’s very fair to say industry wide that people are still just getting their arms around [social media],” Sherk says.

As marketers and publishers fine-tune social media and engagement metrics, publishers must use available tools to gauge performance. For example, Wellman suggests using statistics such as the size of groups on social media platforms; the number of comments on articles; time spent on the site; number of page views; number and direction of links; and other on-site activity, such as the amount of discussion between users to generate a rough engagement metric.

Using these measures, he says, publishers can deliver a clear metric and demonstrate growth in those areas over time.

Milner says that the number of conversations with consumers an advertiser can engage in over a set period of time is an example of an engagement metric within Hearst’s platform. He believes marketers will more likely want to spend on a definite number of engagements with their target market on a site like Answerology, before paying a cost-per-thousand (CPM) for advertising on networks like Facebook, where their users are interacting with each other and not with the advertisers’ brands.

5. Partner Up and Integrate
Both publishers and social networks alike are looking to increase social media’s profitability, and there is great potential in creative partnerships and content integration between companies. While many publications have integrated social media into their offerings, Businessweek is one of the first publishers to create multi-tiered partnerships with both LinkedIn and Twitter that add value and increase revenue potential for both sites.

“LinkedIn is the No. 1 worldwide professional network, and we’re all about serving global business professionals, so they’ve become a very natural partner for us,” Byrne comments.

BusinessWeek’s partnership with LinkedIn originated on, where, if an article mentions Microsoft and several of its employees, for example, readers can click on a LinkedIn Connections widget under “Story Tools,” which opens a window highlighting the LinkedIn profiles of those Microsoft employees mentioned in the story. This allows readers to see how they are connected to the people mentioned in the article and potentially contact them.

LinkedIn also populates its company pages with links titled “more information,” sending users to BusinessWeek’s database of financial and personal data on private and public companies.

On Business Exchange, a button allows users to import a LinkedIn profile onto Business Exchange in seconds. This feature aims to increase registration for both sites and bring those coveted LinkedIn users who are early adopters of new technology onto the Business Exchange platform.

“Having more registered users … grows your database, and offers publishers the opportunity to interact with new audiences that they’ve never had before,” Wellman notes.

Finally, Business Exchange’s comment system is creatively integrated with Twitter. “We all know Twitter is really hot, and we decided that it would be helpful and a smart move to be the first major traditional media brand to fully integrate a major product with Twitter,” Byrne shares.

When a user comments on an article, blog post or any other content, that comment resides on the Business Exchange site, but it also automatically populates into the user’s Twitter stream. This increases traffic and visibility for Business Exchange and saves the user the time of making a separate tweet about an interesting article or blog post.

A Twitter module also exists on every topic page of Business Exchange, which searches Twitter in real-time and populates with any tweets on that particular topic. This use of Twitter ties into the site’s focus on combining social media and content aggregation.

These are just five ways that publishers can monetize social media, among a myriad of other potential ROI-generating opportunities. Like any marketing initiative, it’s important to stay apprised of new developments and to test a variety of social media solutions. No single answer or strategy will make or break digital publishers in the age of social media.

“There’s a search for a so-called magic bullet in traditional publishing, a belief that there is a magic bullet where there isn’t one. There is no one business model that’s going to solve the inherent problems that most print publishers have; you’re going to need a machine gun loaded with bullets, and you’re going to have to fire all of them to get the job done,” Byrne says.

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