Tech-savvy fans of the Georgia Aquarium got a special deal this past spring: a big discount on ticket prices. The aquarium offered 25% to 40% off admission prices from February through May to people who followed it on Twitter or signed on as Facebook or MySpace fans.
The promotion brought in $42,000 in sales, something the Atlanta aquarium could track through a URL it created and used specifically for the promotion, says Dave Santucci, vice president of marketing and communication. Santucci and IT Vice President Beach Clark say the promotion also helped them calculate whether the aquarium's investment in social media is paying off, and by how much.
The attitude toward social media today is much like the "build it and they will come" approach that companies took to Web site development in the early days of the Internet. Over time, businesses learned how to measure the value of click-throughs, e-mail campaigns and other Web site functions, and today they can calculate the ROI of their online initiatives.
Now, as more companies adopt social media for business dealings, leading organizations are trying to assess the actual value of using these tools. They're finding that while social media technologies do have business benefits, calculating the hard numbers of ROI is a difficult yet necessary step as they try to decide what actions to take next.
"I've been a big proponent of being able to measure and using measurements to drive decisions. And we're making progress," Clark says.
Santucci says he and other executives at the five-year-old aquarium knew for several years that they wanted to invest resources in social media. He says a YouTube video helped prove the need. The clip, called "Dancing Otters," has attracted more than 900,000 viewers since it was posted two years ago. An aquarium visitor shot the video, but the clip doesn't mention the Georgia Aquarium by name.
Though Santucci recognizes the lost marketing opportunity there, he says the aquarium didn't have the time or staff to make an effective leap into social media until last summer, when three interns came in to tackle the job. One intern was hired to work on the project full time, and a public relations person became the manager of social media and new communications.
Clark says his IT team works on whatever development projects and IT infrastructure are required to support the initiative. Also, he sometimes works with an interactive agency to develop specialized applications, such as a mashup between Google Earth and the photo-sharing site Flickr that shows where aquarium visitors are traveling from.
So far, the financial investment in social media has been small, Clark says. There is IT staff time involved, though, to ensure that the social media activities are integrated into the organization's Web site and to deliver support services, such as the special URL for the spring ticket promotion.