Don’t Let ROI Get In Your Way

by · April 24, 201221 comments

Here’s the question you don’t want to hear while you’re building an audience: “When will we see a dollar from this?”

There is a Zen aspect to audience building goes like this:

  • If you want to be able to sell people something, don’t focus on selling.
  • If you want people to listen to you, don’t talk about yourself.
  • If you want to get something back from your audience, be generous.

So, how can you see a dollar from this?  Wrong question.

An engaged audience is a valuable asset, but not necessarily for the purpose of selling. And you cannot fully fathom the value of that asset in the short term.  Over a period of years, as you grow your audience what happens is this: opportunity knocks because of your audience.

© Marc Roche - Fotolia.com

Most business bloggers understand this about their blogging efforts.  They don’t expect their blog to generate revenue.  It’s the same reason that celebrities and newsmakers grant the most desirable interviews to Barbara Walters or Oprah. It’s not because they get paid more to do it.

Over the past ten years at Lion Brand Yarn Company, we have built an audience and a community that today numbers in the millions. And of course, these are not just top line numbers. We are engaged with each other.

Virtually anywhere that people who use, or are likely to use our product spend time online, we established a branded venue, sharing and communicating, without always knowing how we could “use” that audience or how they could pay us back for our investment. (Blasphemy, I know.)

How do we know how we’re doing?  We know because the size of the audience grows organically. We know by the numbers of people who comment, open newsletters, download podcasts, and share posts at rates that grow and consistently meet our own internal standards.  In general, these standards are simplified versions of the Google and Facebook algorithms.

We keep our investment small.  We engage agencies only to teach us how to do things ourselves when we enter unfamiliar territory. We gradually shifted spending out of print, print ads and postage line items. Digital marketing has always been a lean startup.

With Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Ravelry, YouTube, a podcast, a blog,or the 7 million email newsletters we send each month, our goal has been to build an engaged audience first and foremost.

The direct, measurable revenue we generate from the people we are engaged with is not the main point. And yet we are on intimate terms with our numbers.  Through tracking links and Google analytics we know how our Pinterest traffic and blog traffic convert; we know each source’s relative performance in terms of all key performance indicators.  We study Facebook insights and regularly test new third party Twitter measurement tools.  We look at the numbers and continuously ask, “Why?” Our small but smart, creative marketing team figures out the how.

It is only in retrospect that we can look at our efforts and say that this audience building made sense.  When we do want to promote something,  we don’t have to (as Seth Godin says) wait for some big media outlet to choose us.  We choose ourselves.

Opportunities that are invaluable come to us because  licensors, corporate relationships and other business building partners know that we can reach a very specific but relatively large audience within minutes of deciding to do so.

If you think of yourself as a media outlet, you understand that an engaged audience is an end in itself. There is value in having the attention of the right people.

Jeff Bezos understood this.  According to a Fortune Magazine article on the 12 top entrepreneurs of all time, “He was in no hurry to boost profits at the expense of building an important and lasting company.” In fact, for about the first six to eight years, most people wondered what the heck Amazon was doing.

Building a business that lasts means or building an audience that is willing to give you their attention involves long term thinking. It’s not that the ROI question is wrong.  It’s the timing of the question that makes the difference.

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About Ilana Rabinowitz

Ilana Rabinowitz

Ilana Rabinowitz is the vice-president for marketing for Lion Brand Yarn and blogs about social media at Marketing Without A Net. Rabinowitz approaches marketing with an uncompromising focus on the customer and a grounding in psychology and neuroscience to understand what motivates people to make buying decisions.  She believes that businesses need to develop their own media as a means of creating a branded experience for customers.  She has spoken at digital marketing conferences including Web 2.0, Blogher Business and Internet Retailer. She is the author of a book about psychology, a book about mindfulness and co-author of a book about the culture of knitting. Follow her on Twitter at @ilana221.

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