Brands that count their Likes and Retweets as dollar signs don't understand the real importance of social engagement.

Proving ROI can be one of the most difficult parts of content marketing. Campaigns can function like the Butterfly Effect: A single blog post or Tweet might set off a chain reaction of engagement that leads to an uptick in sales. But with all the noise fluttering throughout even a limited marketing plan, it’s difficult to attribute success to a single act – and even more impossible to replicate it.

However, certain signals can be more indicative of good strategy than others. For example, social engagement is thought to be the most valuable marker of good marketing practices. However, a new study from Social Code cautions that brands shouldn’t necessarily draw a straight line from a Like or Retweet and increased revenue.

Customers and money both take the long way around

Serial Code’s research, For Branding Campaign ROI, Engagement Optimization Isn’t the Best Bet, posits social engagement isn’t directly related to increased conversions. Shares, +1s and Twitter replies may be indicative of content and social practices that lead to greater visibility, but they may not be precisely correlated with ROI. With that in mind, how should social marketing be conducted to actually bring in new business?

First, it’s important to understand Social Code is not saying engagement is useless – far from it. It’s saying that without an organized plan for eliciting Likes and other social signals, brands would never be able to properly understand which content resonates most. They advocate using engagement data to better design and target social ads, although that might not be the ideal choice for all companies.

Secondly, while ROI might not be directly tied to social activity, it’s important for brands to think carefully about their own business models. As Brafton reported, the likelihood a sale will succeed is exponentially higher when the client is a former customer. Social media is an excellent way to make sure the bottom doesn’t fall out on a company trying to find new business without working to retain existing connections. And engagement is key to track the success of those efforts.

Alex Butzbach is a Marketing Writer at Brafton. He studied Communications at Boston College, and after a brief stint teaching English in Japan, he entered the world of content marketing. When he isn't writing and researching, he can be found on a bike somewhere in Metro Boston.