Social Media Measurement at a Crossroads

21 Aug

We are at a crossroads in social media measurement. Expectations for rigorous and relevant measurement have risen more quickly than delivery. Too many are fixated on quantitative outputs – speeds and feeds – at the expense of understanding the outcomes achieved by social media marketing and social business. There is still too much emphasis on vanity metrics and not enough on business results. And, if you take a step back, there is simply too much talk about all this and not enough action. At the risk of exacerbating the last point, let me explain.


Social Media Measurement Started with the Wrong Orientation

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, digital measurement focused on website analytics. The orientation was heavily quantitative. How many unique visitors? How many page views? How long did people remain on site? By 2007, with Facebook now three years old and Twitter completing it’s inaugural year, social media measurement was becoming a hot topic.

Crossroads1Early social media measurement practitioners generally came from the web analytics world. Early social media measurement efforts focused on quantifying outputs and not addressing the outcome of the program. The orientation was on ‘How Many?’ and not ‘What Happened?’ The quantitative orientation also came at the expense of qualitative assessment. The emphasis was on getting easily accessible statistics and not on content analysis to understand meaning and implications. These issues remain today, although we have made significant progress toward shifting the orientation to outcomes and business results.

In the early adopter phase of social media, social media measurement was under little pressure to go beyond quantitative output analysis. Many brands, companies and organizations viewed social media participation as a bit of an experiment to see how it best could be used within their organizations. But this was soon to change.

Struggle Between Easy/Superficial and Hard/Meaningful

It is difficult to pinpoint when social media crossed the chasm into a mainstream business activity. An IDC study in the Fall of 2009 suggested the state of social media still best fit the early adopter and not mainstream use pattern at that point in time. 2011 felt like the year the leap happened to me. With it came a new and emerging set of expectations around social media measurement.

Crossroads2In measurement, it is a truism that the metrics that are easiest to measure are seldom the ones that are most meaningful. It may be easy to measure outputs, but it is often much more difficult and expensive to measure outcomes. It is much easier to determine brand mentions in social media than it is to assess whether or not social programming has changed opinions and attitudes of the target.  It is infinitely easier to measure unique visitors per month than it is to determine the return on investment of a social media initiative.

Now that social media clearly is a mainstream business activity, the pressure to demonstrate the impact and value of social media has greatly increased. As the resources and investment against social media and social business become meaningful line items in the budget, the game changes. Demonstrating business impact and value requires an understanding of the business model of the company or organization and how social media/business creates impact (e.g. change in awareness, increase in purchase consideration, increase in active advocates around an issue) in that environment. Measuring impact is more difficult than measuring audience or engagement. It often involves primary audience research so the price tag is higher.

This is a key struggle we face – will we continue to take the easy, less expensive, minimal-value-of-the-findings approach or we will take social media measurement to another level, focusing on outcomes, investing in audience research and applying rigorous analytics to get at meaning and insight? The imperative is clear, how we respond will be telling. 

A Final Turn to the Right

One of the key themes at this year’s AMEC measurement conference in Madrid was creating a bias toward action. The time to (just) talk about measurement is in the past, the time for action is now. I might suggest this goes double for social media measurement. Here are three areas we can address that will help make the leap from talk to action.Crossroads3

  1. Every social media initiative has a measurement plan. Let’s make this happen. Literally any social media initiative, program or activity should have a measurement plan defined before implementation begins. Start with writing social media objectives that are measurable. Align social media metrics with business KPIs. Select metrics across multiple dimensions – programmatic, channel-specific and business-level metrics, for example. Or perhaps paid, owned, earned and shared metrics if your program is integrated across these dimensions. Collect data. Assess performance against objectives. Rinse and repeat
  2. Take a stand on standards. An exciting cross-industry effort has produced a set of proposed standards for social media metrics. Adopting standard definitions and metrics for social media is an important stage of measurement maturity that other marketing disciplines like advertising and direct marketing have already reached.
  3. Understand, articulate & demonstrate business impact.  The heat is on to demonstrate how social media is helping drive the business or organization forward. We must do a better job of connecting the dots between business KPIs, social media objectives and social media metrics and measurement. In some cases, we want to go beyond understanding attitudinal and behavioral changes to understand the financial value of the impact created. Capturing the financial value of social media requires expertise, data, time and money. We would always like to measure impact, and when it makes sense, we may push further to attribute financial value.

It will be interesting to see what the next year in social media measurement brings. The move toward standardization alone should be fascinating to watch. I have tried to make the argument we are at a crossroads or inflection point in social media measurement maturity. What ‘worked’ for us in the past will not work in the future. We know the expectations. The great unknown is how we respond.

Note: This post was inspired by a Carma webinar,co-sponsored by PRNews, I gave recently. You may download slides from that webinar here.

10 Responses to “Social Media Measurement at a Crossroads”

  1. Bill Paarlberg (@BillPaarlbergEd) August 22, 2013 at 6:20 am #

    Hi Don. Insightful as always. And your three action points will appear again elsewhere, I’m sure. But it interests me that you choose to frame this as a crossroads rather than an opportunity. As you say, the theme of the easy way vs. the insightful way runs through measurement. It seems to me that the insightful way provides an advantage that provides great opportunity. I was going to say here that of course the techniques that provide useful knowledge will flush out the easy-way techniques. But then again I just read an editorial in today’s NY Times (“Welcome to the Age of Denial”) about the anti-science turn that society has taken. Gosh, perhaps I am too optimistic. Anyway, thanks for another great post. — Bill Paarlberg, Editor, The Measurement Standard

  2. metricsman August 22, 2013 at 9:22 am #

    Thanks for your comment, Bill. I struggled with the crossroads construct a bit, but decided it sorta worked. Regardless of what we call it, it sure feels like we are at an inflection point and the correct path forward is being revealed from the fog. Should be interesting to see how all this plays out in the next year or so. Thanks again, DB @Donbart

  3. Peter Tsykov August 22, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    Dear Don. I’ve definitely turned to the right of a crossroads.
    I’ve spent quite some time to develop a significantly different approach for PR Measurement and PR Management.
    I would like to draw your attention that PR is a communication process between people, from both sides. People’s values and beliefs affect all the outcomes (opinions, decisions, intensions, behaviours) they set for themselves.
    If we can measure values and beliefs we can measure Social Media communications in the same we measure traditional PR Campaign
    I’ve developed a universal measurement tool that measure values and beliefs in terms “more preferable than” and allows me to cover with viable metrics all cells of the Valid Metrics Framework.
    I think it is not a right time to set strict standards for PR Measurement. The main problem is that most of current methods come from the viewpoint of “listening the world”. We don’t have to forget another viewpoint “speaking to the world”. It makes a big change.
    Best regards, Peter Tsykov, Ph.D., President, News and Analytics Inc., Member of PRSA

  4. Katie Eickhoff August 23, 2013 at 9:30 am #

    Hi Don, Great post! The points you made at the webinar about the struggle solutions and developments in social media measurement were fantastic. It’s so useful to see them here as well.

  5. Heather Rueschhoff (@HeatherSTL) August 23, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

    Insightful post, Don. As a marketer, it’s always been a struggle to move past the “easy” and vain metrics because they are just that: easy to jot down and report on. But, you’re right, they don’t really tell you anything nor do they demonstrate any move towards meeting real business objectives. So what if 10,000 people “like” you. Are they buying your products more often? Influencing their friends to buy them? Improving recruitment efforts or employee retention?

    I digress. But ever since joining evolve24, and gaining a crash course education on how you can really measure social conversations to derive true business intelligence, I’m reminded how many companies still rely on quantitative methods. Thanks for sharing your perspective. Good stuff.

  6. metricsman August 26, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I will be interested to see your approach to values & beliefs as a measurement construct. When and where do you anticipate publishing your work?

    The emerging standards for PR and social media measurement are not strict in my view, but rather are modest and foundational. They simple cover basic definitions and metrics. When people use the terms, Reach, for example, there is merit in having this mean the same thing to different people.

    I would suggest measurement is about neither listening or speaking, it is fundamentally about performance against objectives.

    Thanks again, Don B

  7. metricsman August 26, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    Thanks for the kind words, Katie.

  8. metricsman August 26, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

    Heather! How have you been? Hope things are good in the 314. I had not realized you joined Evolve24. Give the folks there my best regards.

    Agree with your comments about hard versus easy and quantity versus quality. No one ever promised measurement was going to be easy… we just have to bite the bullet and begin doing it well. Cheers, DB

  9. Peter Tsykov August 27, 2013 at 10:54 am #

    Hi Don,
    Regarding objectives. I think we are both right.
    Just because I work with some basic personal characteristics like values and beliefs I have to go a little deeper into the human’s psychology.
    For example, before individual’s thoughts become well articulated objectives (and could be put into PR content) these thoughts go through expression ‘filter’. We can describe this filter using NLP Meta Model which includes three main components (affecting the PR outputs): deletion, generalization, and distortion.
    Another perception (or interest) filter works on the target audience side; before audience get some understanding of objectives. Audience outtakes (and outcomes) depend very much on this understanding.

    What I would like to say at this moment is that if we want to measure Interest, Understanding, Trust, Reputation, Motives, Behaviours, etc. we have to extent PR Measurement terminology with some more human-centric terms.
    I am trying to do this within my approach. For example, I use qualitative relation “more preferable than” as a generalized measure for attitudes, opinions and even perception feelings like “more tasty than”, “more odorous than”, “more euphonic than”, etc.

    Unfortunately I didn’t publish my research results anywhere. Currently I am in the process of developing commercial product for PR Measurement and PR Management and looking for partners.
    Best wishes, PT

  10. JL Stevens April 21, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on crisis management solutions and commented:
    PR professionals must constantly track, measure, and analyze communication efforts to provide senior managers with quantifiable, actionable data. However, while our access to resources and channels continues to increase, measurement resources are lagging behind.

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