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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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?