Does social media marketing work? The issue remains in dispute. Facebook in particular is facing scepticism from some quarters as to whether it will ever be able to monetise its massive user base. And, while brands like Coca-Cola see social as a key channel, others, including General Motors, are trimming their investments. All things considered, the role of the market researcher in finding valid, consistent ways of measuring social ROI has never been so important.

With this in mind, it's no surprise that one of the major focuses of Warc's upcoming Advertising Research conference, which takes place in London on September 25th, is social media effectiveness. And in his presentation, Luca Benini, MD Europe of Buddy Media, a US tech firm that provides social software tools to brands, will make the case that the channel offers a tangible payback. I caught up with him late last week to hear what he had to say ahead of the event.

Luca Benini discusses where brands go wrong on social (1:24)

To Benini, there is no question that advertisers should be either maintaining or raising their budget for Facebook and Twitter-based activity. The underlying argument is simple: with the amount of time spent on social media sites on the increase – comScore says the sites account for 19% of total global time spent online, up from 6% in 2007 – brands should follow the eyeballs. These days, he added, YouTube gets more traffic from Facebook than from Google.

To Benini, positive results from social media marketing can be observed across both soft and hard business metrics – from uplifts to brand equity and favourability to incremental sales. Companies as diverse as Burberry and Ford have "completely transformed their businesses by embracing digital and, specifically, embracing social – and, by doing so, [are] achieving tremendous results," Benini said.

He also pointed out an often-overlooked money-saver offered by social platforms: customer service. A brand that conducts a proportion of its customer service via social networks rather than extra call centres saves money; this saving, Benini argued, represents social ROI.

But how to measure campaign effectiveness? For one thing, a lack of ad data from the networks themselves remains one of clients' most-common complaints. And industry-wide measurement standards are still a way off. In short, brands are raising a question that researchers must help answer. "I think how [social] is measured, how you can make that direct connection, we might not be there yet," Benini added. "But we have some examples in my presentation that might convince some of the most sceptical people that this is working – and this is working wonders for the companies that do it right."

Luca Benini on the difficulties of social measurement (2:46)

There will likely never be a way of measuring ROI as cut and dried as measuring clicks on search ads. But, Benini added, the two digital channels do such different things that they shouldn't be held to the same standard: social is fundamentally a channel for brand-building, while search is a direct response channel. And the way people get to know brands these days is as much through what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter as what communications reach them through TV, outdoor, in-store and other traditional marketing media.

Convinced? This topic, along with a range of other issues facing market researchers – from the power of semiotics to the limits of neuroscience – will be debated at the Ad Research conference next week. There will be speakers from the client and agency sides, ranging from GfK to Vodafone. A full agenda, as well as booking information, can be found in the Warc Store.