The return on any investment depends on what return i expect to gain, and how soon i hope to gain it. If the return i hope to gain on running marathons or going to bed early is to get a degree in physics in 6 months, then the return on running and getting lots of sleep is very low. If the return i hope to gain is to get that degree in the next ten years, running marathons and going to bed early might turn out to be a good investment, because of the positive effects that these disciplines have on my work day, ability to focus, and emotional health.
The ability to accurately evaluate a return on investment depends on the ability to understand both short and long-term goals, and how the first support the second.
I have conversations with many people in organizations right now who are not sure about the potential ROI of using digital media as part of their internal or external communications. One reason for the struggle is a lack of fluency with digital media that has to be gained by participation. It would be like a person who has always stayed up late, and who has never put on running shoes trying to figure out how in the world exercise and sleep might help them in their physics research.
A surprising (and surprisingly prevalent) reason for the struggle is a fuzzy or non-existent knowledge of the organization’s set of strategic goals beyond just increasing revenue or getting more customers, etc. Without this knowledge, the ROI of using social media is questionable. Will it make you money soon? Probably not. Will it get you more customers tomorrow? Perhaps.
But if we understand that revenue comes partially from efficiency, that efficiency comes from effective handling of information, and that effective handling of information often necessitates a partial shift away from email (something our research has shown to be a problem), then the ROI of the use of digital media like wikis internally becomes more clear. Or if we understand that more customers may result partially from the authenticity of an organization and that authenticity comes from the ability of customers to connect online with non-marketing people in an organization, then the ROI of the use of social media like social networks becomes more clear.
One final note: digital fluency is the one thing that will help throughout the entire process. The more digitally fluent a person is, the easier it will be to look ahead and to think critically about the potential ROI of using digital media in parts of their organization. To go back to the original analogy, if i have run in the past, i know how the endorphins that running releases may help me to think more clearly about physics. Also, the more digitally fluent the people are who are using the digital media, the greater the likely ROI. An experienced runner is more likely to avoid injuries and to get the benefits of running which will help to support her research goals.