The one thing most social media professionals won’t confess to a potential client on a first date is that the No. 1 return on their investment will be loyalty.

Nobody wants to hear that.

I know, because before we created all-inclusive content campaigns as a content marketing company, we were selling social media alone, and I’d have to “sell” the concept of loyalty more often than I should. Loyalty? BAH! Show me the green! Let’s just say our all-organic-all-the-time foundation keeps us very selective about who we work with. You can’t expect ROI without earning loyalty along the way.

And are their opportunities for e-commerce? Sure, especially if you’re an e-commerce driven company. But the reason why most companies aren’t seeing an immediate return on their investment for social media, and the reason why social media is moving toward a branding function where companies buy followers, more than a marketing function where companies earn them, is because the return on your social media investment takes time.

For example …

Google Analytics can’t tell you that I saw a friend snap a photo of their Wondermade marshmallows on Instagram six months ago, which triggered me to follow them on Twitter and Instagram, and finally triggered my first purchase a few months later by typing in their URL, and not by visiting a link they posted in social media.

When I decided to “like” them on Facebook after receiving my delicious marshmallows, they’d never know that the “like” was six months in the making. In fact, by looking at their analytics, I’m a speck in their direct traffic.

Social media is screwy like that. It puts bug in the head of your future customers. What analytics program can track when a chef’s delicious Instagram photo triggers me to head in for dinner? Or a photo that someone posts at Crompton Collective gets me itching to visit the next weekend?

Social media is hardly trackable. I’d love to see the research study that tells you what percentage of social media purchases actually come from social media – the real return on investment. It could be HUGE.

The only thing we can really count on is loyalty, another unmeasurable return on investment (although Upserve is doing the best job I’ve seen). Following certain brands, chefs, and businesses in social media have made me more loyal and enthusiastic about some businesses than you could begin to imagine. Some I’ve sent friends to in other cities, businesses that I’ve never even visited, simply based on their social media personae and the loyalty that can be felt by their real customers.

Loyalty, the long tail of social media, is more valuable than a one-shot purchase. I could have bought a single pack of marshmallows from Wondermade from a single link they sent out right away. They’d be able to track it. Super.

Instead, I bought myself a few boxes a couple of months later. Then, a month later, I sent out a few boxes more as gifts. For Christmas, I’m thinking about sending them out to clients. All based on a single Instagram photo that they can’t track.

Social media … totally worthless, huh? Wrong – just drastically under measured.