Communicating and Measuring the Success of Social Media

By Tara Shenson

Standard return on investment (ROI) is a measure of the money you invest against the return you realize on that investment. It’s a profitability ratio, and businesses have been using it for decades to, simply put, figure out what’s working and what’s not.

While this is a relatively easy thing to do when you’re dealing with straight dollars and cents, the equation begins to look a little less like simple arithmetic and a lot more like quantum physics when you start factoring in social media intangibles like fan engagement, advocacy and brand lift, all of which are inextricably linked to online growth. We can probably all agree that these intangibles are good things (says the marketing professional to her counterpart: “I have 2,000 fans and daily fan comments—this is directly contributing to our bottom line, I can just feel it!”). But, feeling it and being able to prove it are two very different things and the proving part has been at the center of heated debate in digital media circles for some time now. How exactly do we standardize metrics and figure these new tools out when the equation is so convoluted?

According to emarketer.com’s 2009 survey, 84 percent of respondents admitted they did not currently measure the ROI of their social media programs.

Somewhat more telling is that of those respondents, 40 percent stated that they weren’t even sure if they could track ROI from their social media tools. What this tells us is that a good majority of the business community has been actively using these tools based on a gut feeling, which, right or wrong, isn’t a sustainable business practice.

2011 is proving to be the beginning of a shift in attitudes with regards to reporting abilities. Bazaarvoice released a survey that shows that 74 percent of CMOs predict they will finally tie social efforts to hard ROI this year, with emarketer.com reporting highest ROI data pinpointed to activities on Facebook, as well as ratings and review sites like Yelp.

Until recently, soft-metrics (such as total fan count, total likes or fan growth patterns) have been the primary means of quantifying social media data. However, the combination of a more thorough understanding of how social activity connects to profits, united with the expansion of technology that can provide better tracking mechanisms, has opened up the door to a new era of insight and data collection.

Measuring the Immeasurable: How do you Connect Things Like Page Engagement to Revenue?

This is the million- (or more accurately billion-) dollar question. Most businesses know that fostering brand conversations and enabling customers to become advocates (digital marketing speak for good word of mouth) is not exactly a new concept and has already been working for them for years. The confusion factors in given the unfamiliar environment in which the conversations are happening in. Luckily, the offerings with regards to tracking mechanisms have evolved substantially since 2009. Facebook offers its Insights, it’s analytics page, which allows page administrators to gauge basic information with regards to user growth and activity, although this is still considered somewhat ‘data-light’ for most marketing professionals who want to really drill down to the specific media consumption figures.

Twitter is also readying its own analytics offering, which was still in Beta at press time. Additionally, there is Google Analytics and a slew of paid tracking sites that may or may not deliver the goods.  But the next big thing that has many of us watching intently are the companies that are integrating with and pulling data from the Social Graph, Facebook’s central brain, if you will, which is a data base of our individual interests and social profiles-that each of us have personally constructed based on our activities on Facebook, and external sites that allow you to sign in using Facebook (such as Amazon and the Huffington Post, among others. With the goliath network projecting one billion users by August 2012 (Time Magazine, Jan. 2011) that promises of a way to connect to one-sixth of the population. Of the current 500 million + users, a sixty-second snapshot of user engagement includes 510,404 comments, 382,861 posts “liked” and over 55 thousand shared links with a total of nearly two million actions performed per minute. Wouldn’t you love to know exactly how many of those actions were connected to a conversation about your brand?

Establish metrics that outline your unique goals and objectives.

Remember to think of social media platforms as tools, not websites or communities—a tool is something with multiple uses and may result in various outcomes based on who is using it, their skill level with the tool, and the specific application of that tool. For instance, I may use a hammer to put a nail into a wall but you might use it to pull a nail out of the wall. Same tool, different desired outcomes, different methodology = different means of determining success. It is very easy to decide that you want your new tools (social media pages) to produce specific outcomes, such as increased sales volume within a specific division or product line, or perhaps you’d like it to drive more traffic through your monetized websites to increase ad revenue. Once you have your end game, it suddenly becomes much easier to begin to strategize how to get from point A to point B and thus begin to measure the success of specific desired outcomes against applied strategies.

It is also important to note the generational shift that we will experience over the next few decades, and being prepared to measure the value of social media against a new demographic of buyers and their unique expectations. Gen X is considered the ‘bilingual’ generation; however Generation Y and the upcoming Millennial Generation (75 percent of whom state they have at least one social networking profile) have essentially been raised on technology and see it as a barometer of a business’s overall health and value. It will not be long (in fact, we are arguably already there) before not having a social media presence is akin to not having a company website. And  more important perhaps, will be how the company engages with their customers within these social media sites and what emotional connections are established between buyer and seller during the social interaction.

Companies like Gigya and others now offer solutions that allow companies to integrate Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. into their own websites to encourage their customers to amalgamate their social communities into the buying experience and in doing so, offer you the ability to begin to track social exchanges attached to your content. These services come with a price tag of course, but will likely become more widely available and thus more affordable over the next 18–36 months as awareness and demand for these types of solutions grow.

A quick snapshot of measurement categories to determine the R segment of the ROI include:

Intangibles:
Community growth patterns

Return on engagement:
Likes & Comments
Shared content / Advocacy

Sentiment mapping:
Conversation profiles

More Direct Data:
Conversion volume
Lead generation
Revenue growth attached directly to social campaigns
Increased customer satisfaction and reduced complaints

You will also need to define the “I” in ROI, specific to your strategy to see the full picture. Most social media campaigns define investment as simply time and effort, however more complex campaigns will likely also take into consideration financial components related to graphic designers, web programmers and web based solutions.

Clear Data will Inform your Future Successes.

At this point in 2011, businesses are not trying to justify the fact that they are using social media tools to support their business objectives but rather trying to understand how to navigate this new and relatively uncharted territory successfully. As technology changes (rapidly) so too will the need to revise strategy and objectives, and necessitates clear and concise data to inform our approach. It is no longer sufficient to know instinctively that your social media program is working, but rather to understand how it is working successfully and what gains your company will gleam from your investment. Only then, will you be able to strengthen your social media strategy, reduce your costs and ultimately harness your social tools as a means of achieving your overall business goals.

Tara Shenson is a marketing and communications professional focused on the digital industry specifically on social media. Prior to joining the SCAA in 2009, she worked as a consultant / designer for numerous online websites and digital start ups within the handmade community as well as at a large Southern California construction company focusing on marketing and executive coordination. Known to her colleagues at the SCAA as the Techie, Tara’s passion for the ever-evolving landscape of online communications and message proliferation is closely followed by her fascination with image development and branding concepts. 

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