measuring success through social content in 2015

Over the last several years, the success metrics that have told us if social media is doing a “good job” for a company or brand have fluctuated more than Chandler Bing’s weight in the last few seasons of “Friends.” A few years ago we were all very proud of ourselves as social media managers and marketing organizations if a Facebook post we put out there got a lot of “likes.” Or if a tweet got a bunch of favorites. Because, that told us that the stuff that we published had people clicking a thumbs-up or a star. And of course, that meant success.

Or if your brand page had more fans than your competitor’s page. What an accomplishment. Especially if you spent tons of money to achieve that number and the competitor didn’t. People obviously loved your brand way more. You definitely went and told your boss about how many likes the latest fan acquisition ad spend generated. Everyone was so happy. And nowadays….now….about 1% of those fans you bought see any of your organic posts. So, yeah, that was worth it. Or you can just double pay to now make sure some of the fans you already bought will see your content.

Then there were fancy words like “virality” that was a metric derived from taking those who engaged with a piece of content out of the number of people that actually saw the content. Facebook did away with this about two years ago as it no longer made sense while killing their organic reach algorithms down to the point of almost nothingness. Too many brands would start complaining if there was an obvious number like virality to  track in front of their face (well, brands have been complaining for years regardless). So then Facebook switched to “engagement rate” which currently still lives on and now includes much of the old formula  but now also has clicks. Because clicks are much more plentiful and easier to get, thus skewing the engagement rate upwards and making people see the number and think all is still well in the world.

Oh and that’s another good one from days gone past – post clicks. If you published something and it got lots of clicks you were definitely helping the business. Right? Oh, what?  And we’re not talking about web traffic to your site clicks – just clicks on posts or tweets. Clicks that tell you people were sort of interested in your content enough to look at it closer but not act on it, not share it, not go to your website or wherever you’re leading them, or talk about it, or anything else. It’s like a sort-of-good-but-we-really-don’t-know-for-sure type of vanity social media metric. It doesn’t really tell us much at all.

To sum up the days of social media measurement past – no one really knew what was right. We took it as it came at us and we worked with what we had… to tell some kind of story of success. We all have gotten smarter as years have gone on, including the social platforms themselves. And now it’s 2015 and we actually have to be able to show that social content we’re putting out there is working, and achieving goals, and can directly correlate back to larger marketing and business objectives. BUT WHY? I WANT TO JUST REPORT ON LIKES! No.

We all know social media is not transnational. It doesn’t exist to sell stuff, no matter how hard the platforms or that new agency tries to find new ways to “grow your sales directly via social media.” That being said, social media can still absolutely have an impact on real business results and company objectives and you can showcase that impact.

But how?

Here’s how (and it’s really not that crazy – its really pretty simple, but makes so much sense when you think about it)….

Over the last few years I’ve personally fallen in to the cycle of measuring social media by way of week-over-week or monthly or quarterly metrics versus each other in a structured scorecard of sorts. Much of this is because this is how many of the leading social analytics tools present the data, and this is how they’ve been telling us to do it for years (and how they for the most part still do). I’ve been focusing on change and percent-change across a wide range of metrics, mainly engagement, sentiment, share of voice, campaigns versus campaigns, and a number of versus-our-competitors numbers. By showcasing change we were able to tell the story of what’s different or what we did this week that we didn’t do last week. For example, for a given month I’d have all kinds of measures for engagement of different kinds and then that would be broken out by “Facebook” and “Twitter” and “Instagram” so on and so forth. But it was an aggregate. Not super helpful.  All of these metrics are important to understand and to have somewhere, and measuring week-over-week or month-over-month, etc is not a bad thing. It’s good to have that hard data. However…there’s a problem…

The problem with measuring social media results and success in that way comes when you have to tie back to specific marketing objectives or campaigns or business goals or tell any kind of detailed story of what you did that week or month (or show it). And I’m not just talking about a graph or chart. So much can change from week to week with social content: how you’re using your channels, the amount you’re paying to promote content, seasonal factors, current events and real time conversations; some weeks you’re focusing all on brand stories and others on actual promotional messages. However, the metrics always remained the same regardless of all that. We’d summarize and call out some of these things, but what I’ve learned is that we were missing something very important: having specific objectives for each piece of content (or series, or campaign) with measures relevant to each. It’s not all apples to apples.

For example, if we were doing a two-week content series all for brand storytelling and emotional engagement from users, we were still including site visits and conversions as part of the metrics – because those were part of our “KPIs.” But that’s completely irrelevant in that particular case. Then, as we’re putting together our monthly numbers and presenting them to our marketing teams, we’d show all these metrics month-over-month as if everything was the same. And then we’d get questions of why that week was way down on web traffic versus the week prior when in fact those weeks didn’t even resemble each other in strategy whatsoever. It’s a big miss. It takes away credit from where it is due with content that really deserves it and makes everything seem the same. That’s when you run into the issue of blindingly meaningless numbers. You see enough week-over-week numbers and change percentages… it starts to blur together. The measurements have to tell a story, and it all needs to relate back to specific objectives.

So what should we be doing?

Well, measuring BY CONTENT and each’s specific, respective objectives. Not measuring BY METRICS or BY CHANNEL each week as an aggregate total of social media for the brand.

In other words, have a grouping of each piece of individual content, or series, or campaign, etc and identify what you were trying to do with each. What was the purpose of that content? Generate awareness? All for the conversation? Maybe you were aiming to engage the community? Possibly you were trying to drive real web traffic to your site? Or you wanted people to share their stories or photos with your hashtag and be part of a branded conversation? Any of these things are specific to each piece of content. So, for awareness only report on the impressions or reach as a metric of success against your goal, or for engagement focus on those actions from users, or for conversation participation how about the number of times your hashtag was used and possibly if their were influencers involved? Those are so much more real than just reporting total social numbers week-over-week that don’t really tell you much. Did your content work? Well, doing it this way can get you a heck of a lot closer to showing if it did or not.

And to get extra fancy you can even highlight which of your company’s big marketing objectives that particular content piece ties back to. That always makes the business side much happier and can help the conversation of how social in its own unique-to-social-media way can actually play a role in the larger marketing objectives without always expecting it to drive direct, transactional sales, much like other digital channels.

So, in measuring by content and not just by over-arching bunches of always-on social metrics… you can tie back to real goals, objectives, and be a much clearer part of the business impact, even if social media isn’t driving direct sales. It’s all about only using measures that are actually relevant to what you were trying to accomplish with that content and not just assuming everything needs to report the same ole’ likes, clicks, conversions, comments, etc, etc.

And if this doesn’t sound like anything new to you, well, congrats. I’ve been measuring and analyzing social data and content for roughly five years now and at this point of where we all are with social for business, this measurement model paints the best picture (to me) of true success from content. And if it all changes in a year, great. I’m sure it will.

With social media and content marketing it’s all about being as close as you can to correct at any given time, and moving forward.

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