I’ve been spending a lot of time here on the blog lately writing about social media, particularly with respect to B-to-B companies. We’re about to launch our new Social Magnet product, designed to make it easier than ever to accelerate your social strategy, and easier to find the resources internally to support it. Today I’m staying on that same road, but approaching the intersection of email and social from the point of view marketers most appreciate – ROI.

A study last month by research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey sought to get at the heart of how valuable Facebook fans are. (The data to follow is specific to Facebook, but I’ve seen similar trends regarding Twitter followers.) I know that social media, particularly with respect to B-to-B companies, suffers from the perception of suspect ROI. And while not all of these statistics will remain true for every brand, the data is nevertheless directionally encouraging, and does help to confirm what many marketers find so irresistible about social media – that all of the personal and social interaction there can be a huge boon to brands that have successfully inserted themselves into the conversations between friends.

Here’s the data. Consider how these trends might reflect on your organization as you ponder your own social strategy:

Fans recommend: According to the study, a fan of a brand is 56% more likely to recommend the brand than someone who is not a fan. In email, I talk a lot about relevance – how relevant messaging makes a brand more important in a person’s life. That concept is channel agnostic, and we’re seeing evidence of it in this study. If your brand is on Facebook or Twitter, and you are interacting with your customers there just as you always have in the inbox and trade shows and direct mail and your other channels, you are more in that person’s world. And because social media is permission-based, like email, you’ve been invited into that world. You are more relevant to those people, so it is no surprise they are more likely to recommend you.

Fans are selective: The threshold for becoming a Facebook fan is theoretically lower than it is to sign up for a company’s email, due to the nature of the content stream. With email, every message from every brand you subscribe to hits your inbox and has to be managed. You need to read, sort, skip, delete, filter or otherwise triage that message, or else your inbox loses its vital utility. With social media however, the news feed in which messages appear is transient. If you miss a message it just moves on, with no backlog for you to work through in order to recognize the utility of the channel. So it comes as a surprise to me that the number of brands people become fans of is relatively low. According to the study, 78% of people who “like” brands on Facebook are fans of 10 or fewer of them. To the marketer, this means a relative lack of clutter in the news feed. The fewer other brands your fans follow, the more likely they are to see your posts pop up. As email marketers, we already know the challenges associated with clutter. Curiously, they may be somewhat mitigated in social media.

Fans are already customers: 58% of a brand’s Facebook fans are already customers, according to the study. The upshot here is due to the social nature of Facebook. People talk to each other and, as we see above, recommend the brands they follow. If these people are already your customers, they have a more informed perspective and are better able to tell your story, particularly through their own lens. Someone who says, “I bought from them and loved it,” has more influence than, “I like them a lot and intend to buy from them one day.”

Fans are loyal: Only one in four fans ever “unlike” the brands they follow. True, that is higher than your unsubscribe rate for any given message, though over the course of a year losing 1 in 4 email subscribers is very likely. Owing to the transient nature of the feed content, this data does not surprise me. It is much harder to annoy or cloy a fan through Facebook than it is overwhelm in the inbox (though of course it does happen). But the other reason I think loyalty abounds in social media is that the channel can drive some pretty deep engagement. Not only are people not annoyed by the brands they follow: successful social initiatives create even greater engagement and expectation. Many people keep an email subscription active “just in case” or because they don’t mind it so much. But increasingly brands are using Facebook to drive meaningful two-way interaction.

Fans buy more: The study also revealed that a Facebook fan is 50% more likely to buy (or buy again) from the brand after becoming a fan. It’s not clear what the causality is here – whether people become a fan in the course of their research and intent to buy, or if becoming a fan and interacting with the brand socially is what compelled the purchase. Regardless, the correlation is meaningful, so moving your prospects towards your social presence does drive results.