When it comes to social media, ROI (return on investment) can be a slippery, greased pig of a thing. Some analysts say don’t bother—the fruits of a social media platform only get plucked in the long-term.

Other number-crunching die-hards like Avinash Kaushik believe everything can be quantified and have developed detailed social media metrics, which help quantify performance in terms of Conversation, Amplification, Applause and Economic Value.

And then there’s Blackbaud, NTEN and Common Knowledge who have boiled down the cash value of one Facebook like to $214 for the first year of acquisition in their 2012 Nonprofit Social Networking Benchmark Report. That’s a very useful quantification.

Our Perspective

At Upleaf, we believe it’s important for every single nonprofit to:

(1) Track how well you’re meeting your social media objectives

(2) Understand if and how your social media presence is helping you achieve your organization’s goals.

If you’re a numbers geek, we recommend exploring some of the resources we mentioned earlier. If not, focus on the basics.

1. Define Clear Objectives

Let’s start with the most obvious, but often dodged, requirement of defining your goals. You can’t measure return on investment if you don’t even know what your ideal return is.

So the first step in determining ROI is to hash out your organization’s objectives with these basic questions:

  • What, exactly do you hope to achieve with social media? (This can run the gamut from greater visibility, more donors, better branding, increased authority or more connections in your field)
  • How does your online strategy support your overall mission?
  • What audience are you hoping to reach with each platform?
  • What action do you want your audience to take?

All of this should be part and parcel of your greater online strategy design.

2. Set Benchmarks

Now take those objectives and paste them on a timeline. Set targets at the 6 month, 12 month and 18 month mark.

Aspirations can include how much traffic you want to draw to a certain part of the website, number of email subscribers, and the number of fans and followers on each platform. All of these are straightforward and easy to measure through handy-dandy stat machines like Google Analytics and Facebook Insights.

Meanwhile, balance your inner accountant’s urge to get all wrapped up in equations. These numbers aren’t necessarily convertible to a cash amount on your ledgers. But they are a reflection of your community growth and social capital, which is valuable in and of itself.

3. Measure Engagement Not Audience Size

Just because you have a bazillion likes on your Facebook page doesn’t mean you have a bazillion-member community. Only a small percentage of likers will be actively involved with your page. Rather, find out:

  • What percentage of your community is active?
  • How many likes, shares, retweets, re-pins and comments are you getting?

4. Differentiate Between Hard and Soft Metrics

Social media engagement such as likes and retweets are known as “soft” metrics. They measure ROI only in a hazy, slipshod way. Keep these separate from hard metrics like number of new donors, and then look for correlations between the two.

5. Use Your Analytics

With Google Analytics for websites and Facebook’s in-house Insights tool, all of these soft metrics are in the palm of your hand. Not only can you collect data, you can then use those numbers to tweak your game plan, reinforcing what works and drop-kicking what doesn’t.

Google Analytics is also really useful for quantifying your hard metrics. You can track daily “conversions” – like donations received, advocacy action taken, new event registrations – and see if they spiked when you shared specific messages on social media. And which social media platform brought in the most conversions.

6. Account for Savings

ROI is not only about revenue. Think about how much your organization is saving on items like printing, postage, phone calls and advertisting, by shifting communication online. All of this helps defray the cost of time spent tweeting and pinning.

7. Consider the Intangibles

Some of the greatest benefits of social media are completely non-transferable to dollars. Social media gives you more control over consistent branding, and the reputation and narrative of your organization. You can listen to the conversations people are having about your organization and your core issues, and chime in when relevant.

Ask yourself: What is it worth to have a continuous, engagable presence under your creative direction? What is it worth to be recognized as an authority in your field? What is it worth to build community? What is it worth for your organization to be instantly accessible, au courant and well-defined?

See what we mean? Always keep this awareness in your pocket. Imagine the cost of not having a strong online presence in this day and age.

8. Use the Power of Campaigns

Most organizations really only see a clear ROI when they launch concerted campaigns, not in the day-to-day management of social media communities. It’s during a campaign that you see the power of your social media capital and rally your supporters around a tangible goal.

9. Ask the Hard Questions

And finally: Ask the hard questions. “Is this social media platform we love really worth our time?” “Should we invest our limited staff time in one platform and do it well rather than spreading ourselves thin across multiple platforms?”

Ultimately your success as a nonprofit is all about building strong relationships with the right people – your donors, partners and beneficiaries.

If your social media presence helps you achive that, excellent. If it doesn’t, refocus on activities that do. You have limited resources, so you don’t need to blindly follow social media trends. Do what gets results for your organization.

If you carefully keep track of what you’re trying to achieve and how it’s affecting your organization, you’ll learn what works and what bombs. Over time your strategy will become tight, focused, and deliver a clearly quantifiable ROI.