Over the last few years – since the term “Social Media” came into mainstream, much of the talk has been about the ROI of the channel. What is a Twitter follower worth? What is the worth of a Facebook fan? What about Foursquare check-ins, or getting posted on Digg or Reddit? Or other possible Social Media mentions…what are they worth?

First off, let’s set something straight – Social Media has been around much longer than people give it credit for. Just because you joined Twitter as an early adopter in 2007 doesn’t mean that was the start of the channel. As an E Business professional since 1998, I can tell it was around then, and even before then. (So was E Business, for that matter). At that time, however, it lacked a catchy term like “Social Media” and didn’t have a bunch of celebrities attached to it. But it existed. How do I know? Because just like today, smart companies participated in what is known as “brand monitoring”, even in 1998.

For those that don’t get what brand monitoring is based on that very descriptive title, it is monitoring what people say about your brand on the internet. People had ways to talk about companies even before the days of Facebook and Twitter; be it blogs, message boards, etc. Granted, there weren’t really any companies offering slick ways to monitor the mentions, but Alta Vista and Infoseek searches worked just fine for the time, as did Google Alerts a little later on. People were talking; you just needed to find ways to listen.

Fast forward to today. You are in charge of your companies’ Social Media endeavors. Your boss wants 35,000 Twitter followers and 500,000 Facebook fans by year end. She read somewhere that each follower/fan is worth $2.35, and she sees nothing but dollar signs. You read many articles that talk about generating Facebook fans by contesting. You read that Twitter followers (lists) can be bought just like email addresses (another topic for another time). By the end of the year you have achieved your boss’s goals and feel great about yourself. But now your boss is asking where she can substantiate the additional earning those followers/fans surely generated. One big problem, however – the dollar signs in her head aren’t there on paper.

You may be reading this post and think I don’t see the ROI in Social Media. You would be wrong, my friend. I absolutely believe there is ROI in Social Media. What I do not believe is that there is a formula or an exact dollar figure that can be assigned to it. Going back to the roots of social and what I’ve been doing for years, it’s all about listening. Wouldn’t you agree that a restaurant assigning ROI to a waiter that listens to what a customer orders is bit overkill? I would. Companies need to listen what their customers are saying wherever they are saying it.

I had the opportunity to explain Social Media to the owner of the company I work for, and I did it in this way: If we were sitting in a booth enjoying our lunch and we heard someone in the booth next to us talk about our company, we would listen. If the person said something nice, we would thank them. If they said something not so nice, we would see what we could do to help. To me, that’s Social Media. Anyone that needs to assign ROI to listening needs to rethink their strategy.