Book Review: Return on Relationship by Ted Rubin and Kathryn Rose

ROR Book Cover

Ted Rubin was kind enough to share a copy of his new book Return
on Relationship
, which he co-authored with Kathryn Rose. I’ve known Ted for
years and have learned quite a bit from him, whether through seeing him present
at several conferences or catching up with him one on one. He is undoubtedly
one of the great leaders in social media marketing, so I was curious to see
what he put together in this book – or perhaps the non-fiction version of a
novella (is there a word for that?). I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of
meeting Kathryn yet but hope to change that soon enough.

The book is a quick read and a useful handbook, especially
for those newer to social media marketing. It doesn’t go too deep into any
particular aspect but is a good survey course when it comes to using social
media to build loyalty, connect with content creators, and bolster customer
service. One area where it struggles is to distinguish relationship marketing
from social media marketing, so those who are already current enough with how
to use social media for marketing purposes won’t find too much that’s new in
this book.

Undoubtedly, there are thousands and thousands of people who
will find this book a tremendous resource. There’s little to argue with
overall. However, I do think they can add a bit of clarity in a few areas, and
rather than just offer a love fest to Ted’s latest work, I’ll share a few
thoughts on areas where my perspective differs with what the authors write:

Backward or Forward?

Rubin and Rose write, “The fact that building relationships
has only recently become the focal point of marketing seems a bit backward, as
relationships should always be the
focus of our interactions.”

That seems to miss the point that digital media, and
specifically the past decade where social media usage has achieved the
necessary scale, has enabled relationship marketing to happen. In the 1980s,
when I was a grade school student, I wrote letters to some major corporations
to alert them about product defects, such as a promised pack of bubble gum
missing from a cereal box, and I often received letters in return, but that
was hardly an efficient way to build relationships for the consumer or brand.
Similarly, direct mail marketers accumulated a vast amount of data on their
customers, but direct mail is hardly the best way for most marketers to
regularly engage in personalized communication with thousands or millions of
consumers.

Not Just a Social ID

They also refer to “building your Social ID,” touching on
five areas in particular:

  1. Responsiveness
  2. Thought leadership
  3. Content creation
  4. Relevance
  5. Demeanor

It’s a great roundup of what can impact how a brand is
perceived online. Yet by calling it a Social ID, the authors risk encouraging
readers to create a Social ID that is separate from the brand identity. If Time
Warner Cable is incredibly responsive online – especially to someone like me
with a larger than average Twitter follower count or Klout score – but can’t
string a coherent sentence together over the phone, the Social ID  means nothing. Or consider whether the brand stands for thought leadership. If so, social media can be an enabler of it, and
offer new distribution channels for those leading thoughts. But if the brand
comes off as a thought leader online and its products lag behind, it will lose
its credibility. I have experienced this first-hand at my agency, 360i. When I
was one of a number of people working on our Social Marketing Playbook that we
released in 2009, we knew it only mattered if we were doing some of the best
work in social media marketing. Otherwise, we would have risked alienating our
clients. Thoughts mean little without actions to back them up.

Measuring the Return

This is a short book, but one area where I was hoping for
more is in the measurement piece. I was very excited to see this addressed, but
it didn’t go nearly far enough, especially when the book’s cover urges readers
to “start measuring your ROR.”

Early on in the section, the authors quote Erik Qualman who,
when asked about the return on investment (ROI) of social media, retorted, “How
do you measure the ROI of your phone?” That reminds me of when Charlene Li
wrote in her book Open
Leadership
, “What is the ROI on your fire insurance policy?” Fair point.
But Li, who also co-authored Groundswell,
has devoted numerous pages of books and reports to then go on and help businesses
actually calculate the ROI of social media.

The ROR chapter ends with a sort of tautology formatted into
something resembling a haiku: “Social media drives engagement. Engagement
drives loyalty. Loyalty correlates directly to increased sales.” Then it closes
with “ROR = ROI.”

There are two problems with this. The first is that social
media can do far more and far less than drive engagement. Social media can
directly impact loyalty beyond just using proxies like engagement, and social
media can at times directly contribute to sales – though it doesn’t need to for
it to be effective, most of the time. And social media doesn’t necessarily
drive engagement at all. I go to all too many brands’ Facebook pages that post
pathetic attempts at drivel and generate practically no engagement whatsoever.

Then there’s the ROR = ROI piece. If that’s it, then I’m
really confused. Why read a whole book on ROR if I already know how to
calculate ROI? What’s different about ROR? From the Zen koan of an equation, I
have no idea. I’d love to see this fleshed out more in a subsequent work.

Post-script:

First, Ted and Kathryn couldn't be more gracious in their reception of the review. My first reaction to Ted over email when I read the book was very simple: "I'm not the target audience." He knew that, but he still encouraged me to read and review the book, and I'm glad I took the time to go through it.

Second, Chuck Kent penned a meta-review of this review, comparing it to one written by another friend of mine and Ted's, Drew Neisser. I've enjoyed reading Drew's writing and meeting up with him over the years, and next time I see him, I'll be sure to ask him more about what he learned from ROR, as I would be surprised if I didn't miss a few gems when reading the book.

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