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Social media: seeking proof of the payoff

Varicent president Dan Shimmerman, left, and marketing vice-president Brian Hartlen at their office in Toronto, June 6, 2011.


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Dan Shimmerman has used all sorts of marketing initiatives, from trade shows to conferences to webinars, to generate leads for his company's sales-performance-management software. And years of experience have taught the president and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Varicent Software Inc. what kind of interest these tactics will spark.

But the company's latest marketing effort – jumping onto the social media bandwagon – has stumped Mr. Shimmerman and Brian Hartlen, Varicent's 's vice-president of marketing.

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Mr. Hartlen, who has been in marketing for 30 years and is overseeing Varicent's social media initiatives, says he usually knows what to expect from a sales campaign. "I can plan trade shows and direct mail campaigns, and I've been tracking these for so long that I can estimate the number of inquires I'll receive from each event."

But, when it comes to social media, which the company launched into six months ago, he and Mr. Shimmerman say they have no idea if a new Twitter follower is actually a sales lead, or whether a client came calling after finding Varicent on Facebook or reading the company's blog.

"We're business intelligence guys. Data is in our DNA – but we don't know what good measurements look like," Mr. Shimmerman says.

So far, Varicent has spent $20,000 to get its social networking efforts going, and Mr. Hartlen estimates he spends about 20 per cent of his time on them.

He says he hopes the initiative will generate sales – but it won't be long before he needs to actually justify it. "There is some blind faith in this, but we can't continue to experiment without getting returns," he says.

Varicent's challenge: How can the company know if its social media initiatives are translating into sales?


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Mia Pearson, president of Toronto-based communications agency North Strategic

Measuring a tie to sales directly is hard. When it comes to social media, there are so many factors in what ultimately makes a good sale. And it's harder to track B2B [business to business] given the larger price of a sale in that sector. IBM uses social media conversation to identify leads before the sales team starts to drive the conversion. By listening to conversations, they can identify [potential customers]and then turn them into clients.

It helps to have a community manager who engages with customers. The community manager can say, 'I've been online talking to company X for the last two days and they have these challenges.' That information should be [given to the]sales department. And, when a new client does present itself, the community manager will know if he or she has been talking to that company.

Mitch Joel, president of Montreal-based marketing firm Twist Image and author of Six Pixels of Separation

First, know that it takes a long time to build an audience. People can blog for months and nothing will happen. It's true that you can just set up an account, put some pics online and off you go, but it's slow to build real traction because you're not doing direct sales. You're developing relationships.

When it comes to tracking, there's no one answer, but the best way to find out if your social media efforts drove a sale is to ask. When we sit down with a big client, part of that conversation is, 'How did you hear about this? They say, 'we went on your blog and you looked like someone we should call.' You'll know if your social media efforts are at least working by how shareable your content is. You can see how many people retweet content and you can put that in a tool such as Google's PageRank to tell you how hot a post was. Also, create unique links specifically for Facebook and Twitter that direct people to your website. When someone comes to your site, you'll be able to tell where they came from, from those links.

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David Alston, chief marketing officer of Fredericton-based social media monitoring company Radian6

When we do lead generation, we look for conversations that we can take part in. If someone is online looking for help to find a new social media monitoring solution, we reach out and share information. We see that these online conversations turn into "Can I see a demo for Radian6?" which then turns into sales. For us, the important part of getting the sale is staying engaged with people.

Varicent has to be proactive. They can't wait for the customer to find them. It's about finding out what customers want, how their competitors are doing and how they can be part of these conversations. They can then track these engagements.

For example, if you start talking to a customer about your product on Twitter and then they e-mail you for more information or to speak with a sales person, it would be important to keep a record of how this engagement started and if it turned into a sale. Ensure that these interactions are consistent and that there is some sort of record.


Reach out to potential clients

Use Twitter's search to find out what people are saying about your company or your industry. Instead of waiting for sales to come to you, seek out leads by engaging with possible customers.

Track your content's reach

See how many times a tweet has been retweeted or use PageRank tools to see if your blog post was a hit. If content is being shared and commented on, people are paying attention to your company.

Hire a community manager

Use someone who is dedicated to social media. That person should engage with customers and work with the sales team to pursue potential leads.

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