By David Benoit

May 18, 2016 9:33 am ET

Investors are clamoring for companies to disclose their return on invested capital, but they aren’t exactly buying the story companies are trying to tell with the metric.

In a survey this spring by investor relations experts Rivel Research Group, ROIC once again scored as the most important financial metric for global investors that companies can talk about, as The Wall Street Journal wrote about earlier this month.

When asked what metric is “very important” to investment decisions, 57% of those surveyed answered ROIC, the highest score among the various measurements. That was up from 49% in December 2013. Two years ago, ROIC trailed earnings-per-share growth but climbed to the top spot in a survey conducted at the end of 2014.

The second-highest scorer this year was free cash flow margin, another efficiency metric, which jumped from fifth place in the previous survey. (Note to companies: Investors could do without price-to-book value, which only 1 in 5 said they need to hear about.)

But Rivel dove deeper into conversations with 353 buy-side professionals and found some signs companies need to be on their game when discussing ROIC.

Roughly 75% of those surveyed around the globe said they were at least somewhat satisfied with the disclosures from companies, a good sign for companies. But when asked to compare a company’s discussion of its ROIC with an activist’s argument about the company’s ROIC, the survey was more tepid for companies.

In North America, less than half of those surveyed, 43%, gave the company the nod while 32% said they bought into the activist. (Some 6% said both and 18% were uncertain.)

That seems to imply companies need to do a better job selling their plans on ROIC, or potentially risk investors taking the side of the activists.

ROIC is becoming a flashpoint in activist fights. Investors argue that companies are failing to earn returns on their spending and companies say investors are failing to give them time.

In their comments to Rivel, various unnamed investors raised concerns about the difficulty in finding ROIC and whether it’s comparable to peers, urging companies to disclosure how they calculate it.