Overcoming the flawed paradigm of social media measurement

This originally appeared on The Next Web on 21st July, 2014.

Garbage in, garbage out: a pithy phrase that captures the notion that flawed or incomplete data inputs invariably lead to flawed conclusions. In the social media world, this truth has never been more important as 1) brands look to turn ones and zeros into actionable insights; 2) ‘big data’ loses its cachet; and 3) ‘smart data’ comes to the fore.

If you want to stir up a lively debate among today’s social media gurus, simply broach the topic of reach and engagement. Is Facebook engagement for brands up or down since the social networking behemoth tweaked its News Feed algorithm? It all depends on whom you ask.

The statistics used to bolster either viewpoint depend on multiple moving variables. What brands were analyzed? How many brands were analyzed and over what time period? It’s quite easy to follow the numbers to faulty conclusions without examining things a bit closer.

In order to bring a potentially fuzzy picture of social engagement into sharper focus–regardless of whether the data shows it heading north or south–brands must first consider (and answer) two critical questions:

  1. How exactly do we define ‘engagement?’
  2. Are all social media metrics created equal?

Is it really engagement?

In the wake of Facebook tinkering with the amount of brand content that shows up in news feeds, it’s tempting but inaccurate to use the terms ‘reach,’ ‘interactions,’ and ‘engagement’ interchangeably when analyzing the outcome. Claiming engagement is up or down and then using reach and interactions to prove the case is comparing apples to oranges.

While certainly interrelated in several ways, reach refers only to views and potential views. According to Facebook’s definitions, engagement is more synonymous with interactions i.e., any type of click on a post. However, a further and important distinction can even be made between interactions and engagement.

It’s easy to infer from surface data that engagement is up (or down) for any social network if we simply lump all interactions together (including vanity metrics such as clicks, fans, followers, and likes) and call it ‘engagement.’ But even if we count all interactions as engagement, it’s still easy to arrive at misleading conclusions if we fail to examine the correlation between the percentage of interactions and rising number of fans or followers.

For instance, if a brand with 80 million fans gets 4 million interactions in January (5 percent), then in June when they have 85 million fans and get 4.25 million interactions (still 5 percent, but a gross increase of 250,000), did engagement really increase in a meaningful way?

The value of different metrics

One billion: this is the reported number surpassed for World Cup-related Facebook interactions (including posts, comments and likes) between June 12 and June 29. Wrapping everything up in a single, albeit large, number like this works if we just want to get a quick snapshot of total social activity produced by everybody around a large and trending event.

However, brands that want to get serious about measuring performance must go beyond raw numbers and look at the different metrics for what they represent in the larger engagement picture.

When it comes to measuring engagement, the status quo for many is the above approach used to quantify World Cup interactions. Regardless of the formula one uses to measure engagement, we must start with the fundamental premise that not all metrics hold the same inherent value.

Treating all metrics equally can generate quick conclusions, but those conclusions can be misleading for a brand looking to benchmark their content’s engagement against their own previous content, or that of their competitors.

Standalone vanity metrics such as clicks, fans, followers and likes aren’t nearly as valuable as comments, shares or retweets–interactions that can be more accurately defined as meaningful engagement.

The fact that content was potentially viewed by a lot of people is a good start, but can’t be the sole arbiter of engagement. Metrics must be weighted differently in relation to each other in order to come up with a more accurate way to measure and benchmark engagement.

The methodology and weights that brands assign to different metrics can and should vary depending on individual priorities and objectives. For example, a brand that poses a question to its fan base might want to assign a higher weight to comments than shares if measuring qualitative feedback is the goal.

Another brand running a social media contest might care more about driving reach and maximizing total exposure, so might weigh shares over comments.

These weights can be changed according to the content, campaign or channel. Because there’s no one-size-fits-all secret formula, it’s important for social media managers at brands and agencies to have access to a platform that allows them to customize the weights and values of different engagement metrics.

Parting thoughts

Beyond the issue of how one measures engagement, brands ultimately need to focus on another core truth. Good content garners good engagement. You can spin the numbers all day long, point to the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter, but in the end, brands must be dedicated to creating compelling content that informs, entertains and provokes action. Data and measurement are simply one part of a virtuous cycle.

Insights from smart data and proper measurement informs and helps brands plan better content, and subsequently, each newly minted piece of content generates new data. That said, flawed or incomplete measurement can certainly mix up the cycle.

So, how do you measure engagement?

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Analyst Debrief – Altimeter, Forrester and Nielsen know your consumer

You know who your target audience is, but do you really know how to reach them effectively? This week we found three reports from analyst groups that are signposts to your consumers and pave the way to understanding their journey better.

Nielsen shows how to Reach the Few, the Proud

Gauging a campaign’s online reach was previously a tedious task. Now, with the advancement of tools, there is no media that is as measurable as digital.

Using a case study of how the US Marine Corps reached its desired audience, a new blog post from Nielsen shows how to evaluate the reach of a demographically targeted campaign. Read the post here.

Forrester says the Consumers you want to reach are on Mobile

Many a time we assume optimizing content for mobile just means adjusting to the screen of the smart phone. Forrester’s researchers Thomas Husson and Roxana Strohmenger found that marketers have a lot of upside if they up their game and think beyond just screen optimization.

They found that people spend more time socializing on their smartphones as compared to their PC and are more likely to create, appreciate and share brand content from their mobile devices. The report further goes on to say that personalized story telling is here to stay.

Altimeter highlights the importance of mapping the customer’s journey

Altimeter’s latest report examines the state of digital transformation and employs the results of a survey to better elucidate business’ digitization process and challenges. While the comprehensive report covers a wide variety of topics, its core emphasizes the importance of mapping a customer’s digital journey.

Identifying the right touch points in the consumer’s digital experience lifecycle will help in developing a deeper understanding of the consumer and even aid product innovation. The survey gives a broad overview of how the industry is adjusting to the digital metamorphosis and prepares the reader to embrace the change better.

In this weekly series, we do a roundup of reports most relevant to today’s digital marketer and modern communicator from analyst groups like Altimeter, Bain, Gartner, McKinsey, Nielsen and others, and showcase the ones. If you’d like to read more such reports, you can keep track of our complete Analyst Debrief series. We’d also love to chat, leave a comment below or drop us a line on Twitter @unmetric.

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Beyond the Numbers: Interview with Waggener Edstrom’s Zaheer Nooruddin

In this week’s “Beyond the Numbers,” we continue our jetsetting to chat with Zaheer Nooruddin in Singapore. Zaheer is the Vice President of Digital & Social Media at Waggener Edstrom’s APAC division. He’s also authored numerous publications, including The Social Media MBA and Content Matters: Exploring the Business Impact of Content Marketing in Asia-Pacific. In the interview, Zaheer talks about how businesses should be using social as a means of real-time intelligence for businesses and to identify macro trends.

You can find the complete interview archive here.

How does your organization define social media marketing, and how does it fit into the larger digital marketing picture?

Social media marketing for us is a mind-set more than another digital platform (like web or mobile) – or even another set of channels. Social media marketing means using opportunities to socialize brand content and engagement. As most of the internet is now a social space – think of every new site and most web sites, not to mention all social sites! – it is about giving customers reasons to connect and be part of a dialogue, a co-created conversation around a topic or theme that a brand wants to be a part of, add value to, and knows. In this way Social fits into the larger digital marketing landscape – not as an “add-on” – but as a mind-set. And for this reason it is very hard for many marketers to understand and to truly leverage in their programs.

How have you seen social media greatly impact your business?

The impact to our business as an integrated, global marketing-communication agency has been phenomenal and fundamental. As an agency leader, there is not a single other development that has caused such a shift in how we do our work for clients – in communications and marketing – and in how clients view our value and the value of their own work. Social media connects everything. Nothing is possible in marketing today without social media as an underlying layer – from engagement to analytics and developing the right audience insight.

When is social media data most critical to your efforts: During the planning process; while you’re executing a campaign, so you can change course or allocate more resources; or afterwards, to measure your success?

Social media data is critical across the entire marketing-communications journey or process for a company. It starts with developing insights through audience, competitor and opportunity research that social makes possible in an unprecedented fashion. It continues with listening and optimization programs and campaigns in real-time. And using social as a key facet of customer care and service in addition or as a replacement even, to other service channels such as call centers and digital FAQs. And finally there is the huge need for better measurement that Social media offers many opportunities and important data points in. So, social media data is critical at every stage, it is not a nice to have in marketing and communications today – it is a must have.

What’s more valuable, competitive intelligence on brands within your industry, or being able to look at the efforts from brands in other verticals?

Most brands are interested in viewing competitive intelligence within their own immediate competitive landscape, that is, within their own vertical. That said, looking at marketing best practice rather than sector best practice is important too – as sectors and verticals can learn from each other. Marketing and communications is a universal language. It is about customers, humans. Not trying to learn from across the spectrum is a mistake that too many brand marketers and communicators make today.

Social media channels are increasingly moving to where paid content is promoted more than organic content. How do you feel about this, and how has it affected your social strategy?

As a marketer this is not ideal since consumers prefer organic outreach and engagement – not paid advertising. More nuanced and authentic forms of advertising and getting messages across will be key to making the new approach work for brand engagement. Sponsored content and Native advertising are two innovative forms of advertising that have been tested – to mixed results – to support paid media solutions within the social sphere. This is a major disruption to how social works, what makes it important as a source of real and spontaneous engagement between brands and their audiences. But, it was inevitable as certain social channels like Facebook and Twitter reach scale and maturity and need to monetize their platforms. I just wish that the modes of the distribution of content that these platforms have developed – even if paid for by brands – was more subtle and less intrusive. The paid model within social channels needs to continue to evolve, otherwise I am afraid it will create problems for brands who will move away from social as a way to engage. Marketers were just beginning to understand the value of social. This move towards paid within social does not help matters at this stage in its evolution and in how marketers understand its value to their businesses. The move happened too early – but it’s happened and now we must deal with it.

What do you see as the single most disruptive force coming to the world of social media marketing?

I think the opportunity within analytics and insight for businesses is the greatest force that social brings. Now that the web and mobile has been largely “socialized” and that paid solutions are forcing their way into social media, I believe that the opportunity for engagement is less obvious for brands, but that the opportunity for using social as a means of real-time intelligence for businesses – around innovation, macro and micro trends, consumer sentiment, corporate issues and crisis management, employee and talent engagement – are key. As technologies around social intelligence – like Unmetric – continue to develop their offerings, and to show the industry what’s possible with real-time smart data that empowers better business decision-making and marketing optimization, this single most disruptive force to the world of social media marketing – and all marketing – will become clear to marketers the world over. Integrating social media intelligence into organizational and brand intelligence will be key – so social intelligence technologies must focus on their ability to easily integrate.

What are the social media metrics you don’t have access to today but would like to be able to leverage in the future?

I think all the important metrics are available. If anything I believe that too many metrics are available today. I look forward to a point in time when it’s less about metrics and more about meaning. Bringing business and marketing insight forward, rather than merely metrics – or at minimum making it easy for marketers to more quickly glean insight from the data that surround them, will be the golden egg that social media intelligence must lay. And soon!

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