Social media has been a part of media plans for a long time, but accurately measuring how it affects not only the overall communications effectiveness but the bottom line has proved extremely difficult. Following the recent IPA Effectiveness Awards, however, two big brands in the UK – Starbucks and Tesco – have managed to demonstrate social activity’s effect on revenue.

For the international coffee brand, social media has been a long-term element of their communications strategy, building out from its traditional media ads. These had aimed to build presence and popularise seasonal products, with an over-arching offer of building a perception of quality in the brand and its coffee.

The strategy, which Matthew Philip and Rachel Lake of Manning Gottlieb OMD write about in their silver-award-winning IPA paper, involves a fascinating overview not only of how to demonstrate how precisely social activity affects the bottom line but also how social media has changed over its relatively short lifespan. Over seven years of planning, the authors observe three dominant trends:

  1. Events and seasons: 2010–2012: Scaling up use of social to give Starbucks an everyday presence in our audience’s lives with seasonal beverages.
  2. Icons and imagery: 2013–2015: Building credibility for the brand by establishing the cup as an iconic asset in social media.
  3. Personal expression: 2015–: Align with cultural and behavioural trends to allow people to express themselves through Starbucks.

But the most important part of the paper is how it is able to track social spend and the revenue contribution. Notably, they can demonstrate how an investment of just over a million pounds sold an additional 4.8 million cups of coffee between 2013 and 2015. Prior to 2014, social had been a small proportion of the overall budget; from 2014 to 2016, the brand’s spend on social garnered an ROI of almost £10 for every £1 spent.

The authors put this down to adapting in the way they used social media, which, in short, meant trying to look less like a brand publishing the result of a photoshoot and more like people taking photos with a cup in their hands. “Starbucks were able to grow sales by investing in social media and using it the same way our audience did,” Philip and Lake write.

Ultimately, the lessons from Starbucks work at a variety of levels. First, the lesson that social media activity can drive sales is a significant topline finding. But the paper has useful advice on the less strategic tasks of social: learn from your audience, do lots of visual stuff, put out assets that people can use for themselves.

Meanwhile, Tesco, the UK supermarket chain, used social media to bring to life a slogan that had been in operation since 1993 – the slogan itself was a millennial! – by actually being helpful.

BBH Strategy Director Simon Gregory and Mediacom partner James Parnum describe how a helpful social media strategy delivered impressive returns.

The brand’s key trading calendar, helpfully, aligned closely to some of the UK’s big cultural moments: Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas. It was during these periods that customers were casting about for help choosing gifts, selecting and executing recipes. At a lower level, there were also more mundane gaps in knowledge, where being a big brand could actually be an advantage in providing help: how to cook a roast, recipes for healthy packed lunches and what wine to pair with food.

At a brand level, the strategy delivered an uplift in people agreeing that Tesco was helpful; at the same time, levels of anger and sarcastic usage of the ‘every little helps’ slogan diminished.

The more interesting results are related to sales. “By leveraging ClubCard data, we could start to segment audiences into those that had been exposed to our content on Facebook and those that hadn't, and start to analyse the incremental impact of our content,” the Gregory and Parnum write. For instance, this technique uncovered that Valentine’s creative drew a 101% uplift in sales.

Even more impressive were the results around the wine pairing campaign: for every pound spent on social there was a return of £11 on wine. “In total, social media drove £297 million in revenue to Tesco and £59m in profit with a ROI of £3.55.”

So what do these campaigns say about social, other than the fact that it works at the rawest, and most important currency? They demonstrate that social media offers opportunities for companies to give consumers assets and content that are just useful, whether that’s letting them know that the Pumpkin-spiced latte is on its way, or advising on wine pairings. Effective social media marketing is about giving people a reason to click play or to share by being useful, not just for shouting about a message.