I've seen a lot of discussion of social media measurement lately, and some of the conclusions don't look anything like what I've learned about some of the services out there. If you put some of these posts side-by-side, you might think there's a debate going on. It's actually something more fundamental: they're speaking different languages. Social media measurement has multiple competing definitions coming from the various specialties that have an interest in understanding social media.
The problem is that social media measurement sounds like a generally descriptive term, but to the specialists, it suggests very specific meanings. Unfortunately, the meanings vary by the background and function of the writer or reader. Now, before I start linking to people, I'm not saying that they're wrong, just that they're talking about different things.
I've seen four basic applications:
- Measuring online audiences
A lot of the talk about measuring social media comes down to the desire for standard audience data for advertising. Changes in web design and function challenge existing online audience metrics, so we see ideas like replacing page views with time spent. It takes me back to my radio days and time spent listening, which never seemed to come up with media buyers.
Advertising is the only application where standard metrics actually matter. Media and advertisers want a reliable ratings system for pricing and tracking online ad buys. Other applications need reliable data to generate KPIs, but diversity in sources and methods shouldn't be a problem.
- Tracking social media content
Another type of social media measurement is a challenge for web analytics—measurement focused on a company's own online content. The social media challenge is tracking a company's content on 3rd-party services, such as online video and social networks.
Web analytics seems to be primarily focused on management of a company's web sites (and now, its content as it travels the social web). From brand-building and online commerce to direct-response online advertising, metrics like clicks, conversion rate and engagement are all about understanding the behavior of web visitors and performance optimization within the company.
- PR measurement
PR measurement looks a bit like ratings research and a bit like market research. Audience metrics contribute to influence analysis, along with links (or not) and other factors. PR can use social media measurement to identify outreach targets, emerging issues and opportunities for communication, and to measure its own effectiveness afterward. Traditional metrics like message volume and share of voice are easily adapted to social media, so the PR challenge is more a function of technology and scale than definitions.
PR is a natural home for the measurement/monitoring tension. It's also a great environment for the human vs. machine analysis debate, since meaning is so much more interesting to measure than activity.
- Market research
Social media provide an opportunity for online ethnographic research methods, based on the unprompted opinions of—well, everyone on the Internet. It's the world's largest focus group, combined with a greatly expanded media environment, where companies can explore opinions, needs and ideas. This is the home of observation and analysis, not standard metrics, although some typical forms of analysis are available. And yes, I realize that there's potentially a really entertaining argument with the research establishment about things like selection bias, but there's value there.
This type of research feeds back into the other specialties I mentioned—advertising, interactive and PR—but the insights are more strategic than the routine metrics that dominate the measurement discussion. I think it's important to remember that sometimes, research—including quantitative research—is conducted based on what can be learned.
So, before we declare anything dead or crown a victor, let's think about what we mean by social media measurement, and what we're trying to achieve. Are we buying or selling advertising? Trying to influence customers? Selling product online? Tracking opinion and message penetration? Or are we just trying to learn from the massive pool of online opinion? Standard metrics can only be standard within the relevant context, and these reasons to measure social media aren't going to boil down to one metric, no matter how well designed.