Top-Level Numbers Are Candy

CandyjarWay back when MTV played music videos, I was on the radio. On the creative side, we got excited about the ratings—especially when we topped the market. When I was on the sales side, I learned about how the business uses those numbers. In the course of writing a review of Social Media Metrics, Jim Sterne's excellent overview, I thought of some similarities in how easy it is to focus on the least useful numbers.

One number for the public, many for the pros
When the radio ratings came out, everyone knew that 12+ ratings were for newspaper articles. Somebody had to have "the most popular" station. Anyone using ratings in the business—whether their job was sales, promotions, or programming—knew to look into the breakouts.

Instead of looking at overall audience size, we wanted to know how we ranked with important demographic groups—and not just rating, but time spent listening and cumulative audience size. We looked at specific dayparts (times of the day) to see how the programming held up, and we were very interested in how we did against stations with similar formats. The 12+ number that always made it into the local paper never came up in the inside discussions.

Drill into the social media numbers
Social media generates some feel-good numbers, too. Friends and followers numbers might not mean much, but they're hard not to notice. So the web analytics angle is decently complicated, and a lot of people are working out how to find something meaningful in influence, traffic, and engagement. Those aren't the numbers I want to pick on.

I've been paying attention to the listening business since 2006, and I've heard a couple (hundred) explanations of what people are doing there. There's a lot of variety out there, and tools with significant number-crunching heft. But the enduring argument about sentiment analysis suggests that we're still not over the mood ring.

Whatever tool you use, the first number it gives you—followers, post count, overall sentiment—is candy for the boss. The useful insights are deeper in the numbers, in the filters and cross-tabs that you use to slice and dice the data. Look at topics within sentiment within demographics on a subtopic deep dive. Compare with competitors and ask the why questions suggested by sudden changes. Then you might find something you can act on.

Ratings books were printed on paper then, too. Let's just ignore that, mmkay?

Photo by D'Arcy Norman.

About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
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