Measuring Social Media

Measuring social media: two parts Flickr with a dash of Ning.

Measuring social media: two parts Flickr with a dash of Ning.

The answer to the question: “How do I measure social media?” is complicated.

Because the answer is: “You can’t, but you can.”

The question is really two questions.  You can easily measure social media – because everything about it can be measured.  In fact, it is easier to measure social media than it is to measure public relations or advertising.

But I find that what clients are really asking when they inquire about social media measurement isn’t measurement at all.  What they are really asking is this: “What is the value of social media.”

First let’s talk about measurement.  Companies have become trapped by thinking about social media in terms of traditional measurement used for public relations and advertising – impressions, reach, etc.  But that’s applying old metrics to a new technology.  How can you really measure the impact of a conversation that can be cataloged, saved and archived and then forever searched and located?

Jason Falls, blogger at Social Media Explorer, gives as good an explanation of the challenge of measuring social media as any I’ve seen:

“The problem with trying to determine ROI for social media is you are trying to put numeric quantities around human interactions and conversations, which are not quantifiable.”

It’s much like trying to measure the impact of email or telephones on your business.  Impossible, but try doing business today without either.  Social media is a lot like that.  In a few years, we’ll all be shaking our heads in disbelief that we tried to measure the impact of such a ubiquitous source of interactive communication.

In many ways you can argue that public relations is a bit like that as well.  I was recently at a new business meeting with a CEO and asked him about the genesis of an upcoming customer announcement – one of the largest in his young company’s history.  He told me it started with an article in one of the national business magazines.  The customer read about his company online and then contacted them.

A multi-million dollar deal that put his company on the map and it started with a single news clip.  Metric-wise it was measured as one clip in a business magazine with one million readers.  But value-wise?  That article changed the direction of the company.

That said social media – because it is web based – can be sliced and diced into just about an metric you want.  You can measure impressions, traffic, number of RTs, number of Facebook fans and number of followers.  You can build charts, graphs and pie charts to show all of this and much more.

What other medium can be measured with that pinpoint accuracy?  Certainly not advertising.  But value is less tangible than metrics and not as easy to measure.

This is why I like Chris Lake’s advice from his post on Econsultancy called “10 Ways to Measure Social Media Success.”

“Rather than focusing on smaller, campaign-specific metrics, such as traffic from Twitter or the number of fans on Facebook, wouldn’t it be better to look at how it helps to shift the most important business KPIs, such as sales, profits, as well as customer retention and satisfaction rates?  To do this effectively, you’ll need to give your social media strategy time.  Like a good wine, it needs to breathe.”

Great advice.

Don’t misunderstand me.  It’s important to measure the metrics.  Knowing which content and channels your customers focus on most can help you tinker with and improve a social media campaign.  Understanding what works – and what doesn’t – is important.  But it isn’t the only thing.

Chris Perry, EVP of digital and social media at Weber Shandwick (disclosure: I work at Weber and Chris is my practice lead), takes it even further.  Chris captured this measurement vs. value conundrum in a very different way in his recent Advertising Age column called “Why Social Media Isn’t Living Up to the Hype.” Chris was focused on how corporations were struggling to figure out where social media fit because they were trying to shoehorn it into traditional categories like public relations and advertising:

“But what if social media and its inherent benefits are so revolutionary, so potentially game-changing, that it takes time for people to figure out how to best use them? More fundamentally, what if organizational silos and constraints limit its potential to address a new brand-building equation?”

It’s a compelling question – and one that speaks to measurement and value as well.  What if we aren’t at a point in time where we can fully measure the impact and value of social media because we still trying to measure it the old fashioned way?

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