Time to Get Real About Social Media Audience Reporting

12 Jun

Though almost everyone would agree that social media is about engagement and not eyeballs, too much of digital and social media measurement is focused on audience size. How many Followers do we have? How can we get a million Likes? How many unique visitors did we have to our site this month? And unfortunately, audience size estimates in social media grossly overstate the actual relevant audience. We seem fixated and oriented toward ‘how many’, while our focus should be on ‘who’ and specifically, ‘who within our target audience’. Generally speaking, the advertising industry has led the way with audience measures and is ahead of where the public relations and social media camps are with respect to level of sophistication.

In television advertising, the concept of Target Rating Points is a refinement of Gross Rating Points where you only measure and get ‘credit’ for the percentage of the gross audience that meets your target audience criteria. In an effort to keep refining the audience data available, Nielsen has evolved from diary-based data to electronic data to software at the set-top box level that allows operators to monitor channels choices and changes. In audio-based media, Arbitron’s Portable People Meter recognizes today’s mobile world and begins to address cross-platform measurement. It is also interesting to reflect on the U.S. Congressional involvement in television audience ratings accuracy (or lack thereof as it were) that led to the formation of what is now known as the Media Rating Council in the early 1960’s. The time has come for social media audience research to greatly increase in sophistication, accuracy and relevance.

When we think about social media audience size measures today, the emphasis is on Opportunities To See (OTS), although almost never by this name. We might call them Impressions or Reach, but what we really mean is how many people had the potential to see this content item. There are two overarching issues here:

  • Opportunities to see are not the same as actually seeing
  • The metrics count all possible members of the audience, regardless of whether or not they are part of the targeted audience or can even buy the product or service.

OTS is also a prevalent metric in the public relations industry which has always focused on stating the highest possible audience measures. In traditional media we know the probability of any one person in the audience actually seeing the article in question is a fraction of the total audience – a reasonable estimate is 10% or less. So OTS greatly overstates the actually number of people who saw a given article. To compound the audience overstatement, we have the practice of using audience multipliers to ‘credit’ earned media for either a perceived credibility advantage over advertising or to account for pass-along circulation (see this IPR white paper for more on multipliers). Thankfully the practice of applying multipliers (and its evil cousin AVEs) is out of favor and rapidly on a path toward extinction.

In social media one can make the case the audience metrics situation is actually exacerbated in that the probability of any one follower seeing any one tweet, for example, is most likely an order of magnitude less than in earned media – my guesstimate is 1% or less. Before you call BS on this guesstimate, play around with a few Twitter factoids – the recent Pew Research study suggesting only 8% of Twitter users use it daily, the perishable nature of most individual’s twitter streams, and the fact that a reasonably high percentage of Followers of a brand are bots, and the reality is that only a small fraction of twitter followers actually see tweets, let alone find it interesting enough to share or comment on. And, of course, not all Facebook Likes see every post you make either. Riffing on the old, ‘if a tree falls in the forest…’, if you tweet into the twitterverse and no one sees it does it make an impact?

Evolving from ‘opportunities to see’ to ‘relevant audience’ measures.

Most social media campaigns have a specific target audience in mind, often described with demographics (Female, age 18 – 34), psychographics (who worry about feeding their family healthy food on a budget) and behavioral (access deal and coupon sites regularly) dimensions. Yet when it comes to reporting and measurement we take credit for the entire audience (total OTS) rather than the percentage of the audience that meets our targeting criteria. Trying to promote lingerie to 22 – 29 year old ladies? No worries, count all your Twitter Followers and all the visitors to your website – the men, the young and the old – everybody counts. Trying to sell camo clothing to male hunters? No worries, everybody counts – male, female, hunters, non-hunters and PETA members, too. Of course this all seems a little silly and strange and I suppose it would be if it wasn’t the way most social audience reporting is done today. It is unusual to see someone in social media, or PR for that matter, report only the relevant audience opportunities to see. Why is this? I believe there are three primary reasons:

  1. Legacy – the PR industry has historically reported gross potential audience size rather than the relevant audience size. When social media came around, this same orientation toward gross audience measurement was used.
  2. Data – there is a lack of consistent social media demographic and psychographic audience data available and it often resides in channel silos rather than cross-platforms. And often the audience data from one platform (e.g. ComScore) does not match the data available from another platform (e.g. Compete).
  3. Standards – there are no standards for social media audience metrics and no codified best practices for audience measurement.

Where do we go from here?

First, we need a change in mindset of how we think about audiences. From ‘how many people theoretically had the potential to see our content’ to ‘how many of the people we were targeting actually saw our content’. Big audience numbers are irrelevant. Relevant audience numbers are big.

Next, as the demand for audience data that contains demographic, psychographic and behavioral data grows, it is reasonable to assume one or more of the large media data companies might start to aggregate and make the data available. Privacy concerns, cookies and other issues are also in play here.

And last but not least, industry standards for social media audience and engagement metrics and definitions are necessary for transparency and replicability that will increase credibility of social media measurement and reporting. 2012 will go down as the year that serious cross-industry progress on social media metrics standards began and gained momentum. There has already been a lot of progress (See this post from Katie Paine), and this week in Dublin at the 4th AMEC European Summit on Measurement the theme is around attempting to define standards for social media metrics and measurement. To tune into the debate as it occurs in Dublin, monitor #SMMStandards and #AMEC2012.

What  are your thoughts on the need for social media metrics standards and the use of target rather than gross audience size estimates?

7 Responses to “Time to Get Real About Social Media Audience Reporting”

  1. Laura Kinoshita June 14, 2012 at 1:14 am #

    Thanks again for another cogent article. Another, simpler reason for OTS measures are that managers like to see big numbers and few in the executive suite are asking any questions about them. Unless there’s pain (“why are we spending this much on social media and reputation/behavior hasn’t changed) there’s little incentive to change things. Also, the tools themselves didn’t devise reports for the benefit or best interests of industry andAll groups will have strong members and weak members. After the honeymoon is over, how to keep things fair. In our community we’ve tried shared blogging and networked groups of support, but it only works if everyone consistently does their fair share. That said, I’m a big believer that a group can achieve far more together than an individual on their own. PR practitioners. The tools provide automated reports based on what Te TOOL does best. The tools are “teaching” it’s users to think Likes and Follows are important because that’s what they’re selling. These fast and cheap tools are then turned over to bosses who only want to see measures — any measures — go “up.” Its “measurement” of outputs only. Not outgrowths and certainly not outcomes. The tools are providing empty calorie reports and their users are eating them up because they look good and (for now) satisfy.

  2. Laura Kinoshita June 14, 2012 at 1:20 am #

    Aw nuts – my iPhone inserted a rogue “paste” in my last comment. Please delete previous, this will make more sense:

    Thanks again for another cogent article. Another, simpler reason for OTS measures are that managers like to see big numbers and few in the executive suite are asking any questions about them. Unless there’s pain (“why are we spending this much on social media and reputation/behavior hasn’t changed?”) there’s little incentive to change things. Also, the tools themselves didn’t devise reports for the benefit or best interests of industry and  practitioners. The tools provide automated reports based on what the TOOL does best. The tools are “teaching” it’s users to think Likes and Followers are important because that’s what they’re selling. These fast and cheap tools are then turned over to bosses who only want to see measures — any measures — go “up.” Its “measurement” of outputs only. Not outgrowths and certainly not outcomes.

  3. metricsman June 14, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    Thanks for stopping by, Laura. I agree with you on the culture of big numbers in PR and now, in turn, in social media. Many people just want to make the numbers as large as possible without regard to how meaningful the reporting might actually be. Also agree on tools – I like to say that tools limit you to what you CAN measure rather than what you SHOULD measure. This is one reason a multi-tool approach is often the best way to go. No one tool can give you all the data you need. Thanks again, DB @Donbart

  4. Michelle Yeadon June 14, 2012 at 10:18 am #

    I think the data privacy issue is really huge, particularly in measuring the impact of always-on social marketing, like Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. While Facebook will tell you how many ‘impressions’ you got on a status update, you can’t really get any more information on who those people were. You can certainly measure interactions with the content (liking, commenting, sharing, clicking on links), but knowing who those people are just isn’t possible at the moment. I think it’s unlikely that we’ll get a solution like yours implemented into Facebook in the near future (one can hope!)

    That being said, I think you could go further with this. Even if we crack relevant audience measures, it’s not the point of everything you’re doing social. It’s definitely a piece, as it’s being used for PR to a great extent, but what we need is better methods of measuring the strength of the relationships and communities we’re building with customers because that’s where the true value in social lies.

    I think there’s a start in measuring the impact of each individual piece of content a brand puts out, with a long-term aim of measuring the percentage of the relevant audience that exhibited target behaviours, but this is where the tech needs to advance quite a lot.

  5. Rick Rice (@RTRViews) June 15, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    Don,

    What you’re talking about here is better than what we’ve been doing but is it what we really need? Does it really matter how many people read or hear the message? Frankly I think organizations should care more about whether we get a positive action after they read. How is what you’re talking about here starting to hold PR to real accountability for results.

    We need to do measure more important things…

  6. AussieBattler June 19, 2012 at 2:12 am #

    I also think time and resources are relevant for any measurement but particularly pr…as an in-house, whilst my marketing colleagues measure by web analytics and other ‘clear-cut’ numbers it takes me forever just to think about how I’ll measure this or that, let alone finding the time to execute and actually do….why is measurement so necessary!? More results would be achieved if we weren’t so obsessed by how to measure… but then again, how do we know it’s a result?…. sigh – If only I had Hermione’s time-turner!

  7. metricsman September 23, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    Thanks for the kind words, David. Glad you like the blog.

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