Sorting out social media measurement


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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.



Great post. It's fascinating t me that whenever I speak on the subject of social media measurement, a third of the audience wants to know how to measure the impact of their own blog, a third want to know how to measure that illusive (and meaningless) thing known as "the blogosphere" and a third hasn't a clue what to measure and is only there because their boss said they had to be.

And if you ask them what they want, they'll all say "social media measurement." Nice to have such a universally useful term, isn't it? ;-)

I have several clients who are considering doing more viral marketing and social media-oriented p.r. I have two questions to the Internet swamis in this group:

1) Who has the best distribution system for sending press releases to social networking and blog writers? I've tried p.r. web and was just a bit underwhelmed. PR Newswire seems to have a good product line for that now. Am I missing anyone?

2) Also, what are the standard metrics used to measure success in social media marketing and p.r.? It seems to me that it's a moving target and no industry standard has emerged yet. Am I right?

--Susan G.


Using traditional press releases to reach bloggers and social networks tends to backfire. You need to figure out who you want to talk to, and then use a more human approach to interaction and participation. Anything that comes across as clumsy or overtly self-interested is likely to be unwelcome.

As for measuring social media for PR, we're in a transition period with few standards. If you follow Katie's posts about media measurement, you'll see disagreement about metrics in traditional media (AVE, anyone?). Social media offer new possibilities and challenges, and while there are typical metrics, I wouldn't call any of them standard.

Thank you for the explanation of the various business disciplines that are using social media to empower their efforts. I am looking to generate better Market Research insights from harvesting all those unmoderated comments that happen in "the world's biggest focus group." Question: Do you any suggestions (or even recommendations) on which of the dozens of agencies that now offer social media monitoring services, would be best for a market researcher's needs? And what thoughts would you offer to the do-it-yourself market researcher who needs to be more resourceful in generating consumer insights from all those product and brand evaluations that bloggers are sharing with each other? Thanks


The starting point for understanding the range of services on the market is my Guide to Social Media Analysis, which profiles many of the companies in the market. The second edition (featuring 63 companies at last count) will be available soon. Beyond that, I work with companies making those decisions as part of my consulting practice. I'd be happy to have a quick conversation with you to discuss your situation.

The do-it-yourself approach usually starts with free tools, but if you want to go beyond monitoring and start analyzing online discussions, you'll want more. You might start by looking at the free and trial versions that are available.

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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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