In my last post, I talked about how for-profit organizations determine the ROI of a social media strategy. But how would a library calculate this? And, perhaps more importantly: should it even try?

This post by Cory Lown and Hilary Davis explains some of the caveats of relying on ROI in a library setting:

It is, however, essential to remember that there is a reason why libraries do not operate for a profit (with the possible exception of libraries that charge back to users for services), and that they came into being for reasons other than generating monetary wealth. There are also good reasons to be skeptical of measurements of library quality, performance, and relevance presented in purely economic terms…. Libraries must strike a balance between focusing on their mission and on their desire to prove worth in terms of high performance and ROI. For many libraries, ROI simply doesn’t measure the indirect benefits they provide.

Beth Kanter, author of a blog and two books on social networking and non-profit institutions, agrees:

I don’t think [ROI] necessarily works for nonprofits, especially when it applied as a litmus test to see if there are financial outcomes — cost reductions or increased revenue.   Nonprofits should focus on continuum of value that incorporates both tangible and intangible benefits to integrating social media in communications or program goals.

The Librarian in Black sums up librarians’ concerns about ROI nicely: “Many libraries see ROI as a term of ‘corporate fear.'”

But does this mean ROI as a metric should be dismissed entirely? The experts seem to agree that the main problem with ROI in a non-profit setting is the focus on profits, specifically. But this seems to call for a shift in focus rather than a rejection of the concept altogether; that some benefits may be intangible doesn’t mean they aren’t worth consideration. If libraries make no effort to evaluate the impact of a social media strategy because doing so would be succumbing to “corporate fear,” they’re missing an important opportunity to demonstrate that not all value need be monetized—much like the value of the library itself!

But what would this shift in thinking look like? Without the focus on profits, how should the impact of social networking be determined? My final post will discuss some solutions.

Until then, what do you think?

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2 responses »

  1. Trista Nelson says:

    It all depends on how you define “Return”. If we are talking money then for a library the ROI will probably be nil! If we are talking getting people interested in what the library is doing and actually visiting the library then yes the “Return” could potentially be very high. I like the reference in the Librarian in Black’s blog about doing things with social media that are “sticky”…what a great term!! You have to get people talking and sharing or else it is just an ad in the yellow pages.

  2. Richard A. says:

    There is a great article from Library Leadership & Management entitled “What’s the Return on ROI” (
    I think that it is absolutely essential for libraries to understand the frequently dysfunctional or counter-intuitive organizational structures of which they are a part. If a city views the increase in patronage as a testament to overfunding (rather than the economic downturn) how is a library to survive?
    I think Stephanie was correct in saying that the problem is one of focus. It is true that it is difficult (although not impossible, I would say) to demonstrate a library’s benefit on the bottom-line of its community. I think, however, that it is important to realize that this framework of understanding is the default for bureaucratic organizations.
    One of the most useful elements of that article is the discussion of a “Library Use Value Calculator”
    I think it is healthy for libraries to understand that, for better or worse, their governing authorities may be more interested in looking like they are saving money on offered services than on actually providing the most efficient services. Tools like these can help to show how libraries are efficient stewards of money, with the pleasant side effect of actually being true.

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