Going Against All Business Advice: When to Ignore ROI and Scalability
“What’s the ROI of your mother?”
That’s Gary Vaynerchuk’s response when he was continuously asked about the ROI of social media.
Sounds like an insult, and I laughed when I first heard it, but he makes a valid point.
Gary’s mother raised him. Told him he was adorable even when he was rocking a mullet in the sixth grade. Gave him the self-esteem and confidence that he capitalized on decades later to run profitable businesses.
You can’t show that in data. You can’t create a fancy graph that shows the direct ROI of his mother on his successes today.
Imagine if you had to sell investors on whether or not it’s worth keeping your mom in your life.
Wouldn’t they strongly advise you to “fire her” because there are no reports they can run that would prove she had a positive impact on value in your life?
Marketers are asked two questions that don’t always have simple answers. “What’s the ROI?” and “Can this scale?”
You can’t always show ROI and you can’t always scale. But those efforts that lack either or both are the tasks you should be doing more of.
Y Combinator’s Paul Graham points out that most founders don’t have enough customers to worry about scaling issues anyway. (If you’ve never read Paul’s essay on “Do Things That Don’t Scale”, I highly recommend you check it out and then come back here)
“Maybe if they go out of their way to make existing users super happy, they’ll one day have too many to go to such great length. That would be a great problem to have.”
If scaling is such an issue, then you’re at a pretty good place. Worry about scale later.
Take our weekly podcast for example. If an investor examined our company and wanted to know if it’s worth keeping the podcast around, the conversation wouldn’t be pretty.
“What’s the direct ROI of the podcast on your business?”
“Well, we have over 500K downloads and…”
“Okay. But what’s the ROI?”
“Um… We get on the phone and people mention it…”
“Can it scale? Can you show me the ROI?”
“No… Justin and Joe have to…”
We can’t prove the direct ROI on our podcast, but we know how important it is when we get on the phone with buyers and sellers who mention how much they love our show. They talk about how it builds trust and credibility.
This is a huge trust builder on the phone and it’s Joe’s favorite move:
“We have a top iTunes podcast with over 100 episodes.”
It shows that people give a shit – you can’t buy that kind of trust. (click to tweet)
People mention the podcast all the time—online and even when meeting in person—but we can’t chart its impact on our sales.
Yes, we can try to track site visits with special links and offers but, at the end of the day, none of those really measure the impact that makes us money – the trust we’re building with our customers.
We have to assume that it adds value to our business.
Of course, you have to draw the line somewhere. It doesn’t make sense to send a gift basket to every customer, nor does it make sense to personally call and thank every prospect for visiting your site.
Since you (generally) can’t track increases in sales or page views with these non-ROI touches, what can you track?
Listen to your customers and be open to feedback
Do you get emails from fans mentioning how awesome it is? Do other people link to and mention what you did?
If your touches are high-value enough, you’ll see how people respond. These touches are rare enough that when they do happen, many customers give a reaction in the form of a “thank you” email.
Use that feedback to iterate and continually improve on the value you provide.
Go the extra mile and make your customers your brand ambassadors
Chances are, you’re small and flexible enough to add a personal touch that your competitors aren’t able or willing to do. Apple can’t and neither could Facebook.
But you can.
Most businesses are afraid to do things that don’t scale or provide direct ROI.
Doing them take time and require personal involvement—two things some entrepreneurs are afraid of because you can’t prove the ROI do them at scale. Investors aren’t happy with them.
But customers remember. Your fanbase will thank you and sing your praises – driving customers because they just can’t stop talking about you.
Your influence will grow faster than your competitors.
You don’t worry about the ROI of your mother, because you know it’s everything. (click to tweet)
Excellent article and on point. For most web entrepreneurs who are just starting out, such an issue may not exist because they may only have revenue (which is important) and lack a following, like you have here at EF.
Totally right but I don’t think of these as issues but opportunities to grow your company. 🙂
Wonderful insight here. Kinda puts things into perspective. I’ve had too many conversations with people who say they don’t want to start a podcast because they aren’t convinced it’s worth the time.
Obviously the podcast is just one example, but it’s great to look at the question from a different angle.
Gonna go knock on some doors…
Imagine if the world’s first cold caller said that.
“Guys, seriously. It isn’t worth the time. We’ve made 0 sales this past week from calling these ‘leads.’ I’m calling it. Throw those useless cards out the window.”
Agree 100% with this. Podcasts particularly but content in general. The value can’t be measured and people are better off taking the ‘build a brand’ mindset than the ‘ROI’ mindset.
We’ve built our business off trust and branding that came from content written 2 years ago, most of which went unnoticed and none of it led to any decent business at the time.
And you guys have done a badass job!
Attempting to track ROI from one specific podcast episode or piece of content (UTM parameters in special links) can only go so far. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Creating super fans is something that happens outside of charts and graphs.