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Social media ROI has taken on urban legend status. It’s like Bigfoot: Every now and then you hear about a sighting, but mostly, it’s just a myth.

I think it’s time to bury it once and for all.

Michelle Golden wrote a brilliant blog post recently in which she said the whiners who complain that they’re not getting any return on their social media investment simply aren’t doing it right.

“How have they been using social media?” Michelle asks. “Did they define their purpose? Specify goals? Once that was done, did they use the right tools? In the right way? With the right groups or people? And for how long? Did they track the right success metrics? … Social media isn’t the problem. Lack of planning and spotty execution are the problems.”

I’ll take it a step further. The whiners themselves are the problems.

In “Linchpin,” Seth Godin puts forth a pretty radical idea: Generosity generates income.

Godin believes in giving stuff away -– giving away our knowledge, our resources, adding value to other people’s lives and not expecting anything in return. That’s how we become indispensable.

Pretty radical idea. It flies in the face of everything that capitalism stands for, right? The classic business model that we’ve all grown up with was all about product and profit. Make something and sell it for more. People were merely cogs in the production machine.

Here’s the thing, though: That business model? It’s dying. It’s been dying for probably five years. The rules have changed. We’re living in an era in which people are at the center of everything we do. Tom Hood likes to say we’ve moved away from an era of command-and-control to one of communicate-and-collaborate, of building communities and relationships. That takes people, trust, and a commitment to serving others, not just making money. People first.

Back to the concept of giving stuff away. Godin says there are three “circles” of gift-giving.

  • The first is a circle of true gifts -– stuff we willingly share with friends, family and co-workers. You invite a friend over and give her a meal. You don’t charge her for it.
     
  • The second is a circle of commerce. People in this circle willingly pay us for what we produce –- our consulting services, our financial advice, the books we write, the widgets we make.
     
  • Now, the Internet has given us a third circle, and it’s kind of a combination of the first two. It consists of people who might one day pay you for what you do, but first they need to know you and trust you and be comfortable interacting with you.

Social media is part of that third circle. It’s a place where we give away stuff, share what we know, add value to people’s lives. It’s where we build trust, credibility, and relationships.

Do that, and you stand a decent chance of moving your followers into that all-important second circle. Fail to do that, and you’re a relic in a changing world.

And still, the social media naysayers spout their nonsense: “Where’s the ROI? How come we’re not making any money on this stuff? I’ve been on Twitter for a week and nobody’s bought anything yet.”

There is no ROI in Twitter, or blogs, or Facebook. Not if you do it right. Those things are simply the tools we use to build relationships in a social world.

What’s the ROI of social media? As Michelle Golden says, that’s like asking, “What’s the ROI of my phone?”

The ROI isn’t in the tools. It’s in the relationships you build through the use of those tools.

The irony is, the more we give away, the more we’ll make in return.

That’s today’s business model. In a people-first world, maybe our organizations need to become more human.

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