Just about every time I speak with association marketers and communicators, I get asked how to effectively communicate ROI for digital activities to their bosses. It’s not that they don’t think digital is valuable, it’s just that they can’t really find good ways to convey the success to folks who don’t live and breathe online and mobile communications.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that many non-digital folks have enough knowledge to be dangerous, but not enough to really understand the issues at hand. They have read the popular media coverage about Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. They hear about Likes and Followers and become fascinated.

The toughest executives and board members to communicate ROI to are the ones who have been fed a steady stream of useless statistics by other digital communicators. They get hooked on data that doesn’t really move the needle.

Focus on Outcomes Not Outputs

If I had just one piece of advice when it comes to ROI it is that I would talk to your bosses about what the effect of your digital outreach efforts was, not about how much of it you did. In traditional media terms, would you care more about how many press releases were issued or how many articles resulted? Carrying it a step further, who cares how many stories were written — isn’t it really how many widgets get sold as a result?

Use your available data to steer the bosses away from meaningless (and easily manipulated) figures like how many Likes or Followers your accounts have. Don’t get trapped into unique visitors or (to take a blast from the past) “hits.”

Look instead at how many new members you generated from your digital activities, how much engagement you had with members, how many publications or event registrations you sold online, and other meaningful indicators of success.

Keep it Simple

The KISS principle exists for a reason. When you’re talking with non-digital leaders, you need to put things in terms they understand. Sticking with outcomes is a good first step — they all understand sales, registrations, and memberships. But it also means that you need to include analogies to real-world activities, just as I did with my reference to press releases earlier in this article. Bridge the knowledge gap by simplifying at every level.

Be Consistent, But Flexible

Early in my career I fell into the trap of reporting hits to my board. This was in the very early days of the Internet, and I wasn’t alone. The problem was that “hits” included every file on a page. So if you had a page with 10 graphics, it would count as 11 hits (10 for the images and 1 for the page itself). There’s a reason why HITS developed into an acronym for “How Idiots Track Success.” Unfortunately, my predecessor had used these numbers, so I went right along with it. When we decided to redesign the site, it caused an immediate downturn in hits — not because we had fewer visitors and less interest, but because we got boxed into the wrong set of numbers.

Consistency matters when reporting to your bosses and board because it keeps things simple and removes the element of confusion. It also allows you to demonstrate trends (more on this later). But you must be careful to evolve as the industry, technology, and the needs of your association change. Consistency can easily become stubbornness.

Show Trends

Coming from the world of politics, I can tell you that the absolute numbers in tracking polls don’t matter nearly as much as the directionality of the numbers. In other words, if the poll shows that Candidate A is rising and Candidate B is falling, I can rely on that data. But I probably don’t care so much whether one is at 30 and the other at 25.

The same goes for much of what you do in the digital world. The absolute number of members you sign up online may not be as impressive as the percentage growth in those activities. Especially as you are getting started with digital tools, you want to make sure you can demonstrate continued improvement (or explain the steps you plant to take to address a potential decline).

Bottom Line

Put yourself in the shoes of a non-digital executive or board member. Think about what they might want to know. Deliver the ROI data to them in a simple, understandable manner that enables you to show consistent improvement over time.