Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No Silver Bullets for Social Media Measurement

The editor of my forthcoming book on marketing measurement asked me to add something on social media, which led to several days of research. Although there are many smart and articulate people writing on the topic, the bottom line is, well, you can’t really measure the bottom line.

There are plenty of activity measures such as numbers of page views, comments and subscribers. Sometimes there are specific benefits such as reduced costs if technical questions are answered through a user forum instead of company staff. Sometimes you can compare behavior of social media participants vs. non-participants, although that raises a self-selection problem – obviously those people are more engaged to begin with.

But measuring the impact of social media on attitudes in the population as a whole—that is, on brand value—is even harder than measuring the impact of traditional marketing and advertising methods because the audience size is so small. Measuring the impact of brand value on actual sales is already a problem, what you have with social media could be considered the brand value problem, squared.

In fact, the closest analogy is measuring the value of traditional public relations, which is notoriously difficult. Social media is more like a subset of public relations than anything else, although it feels odd to describe it that way because social media is so much larger and more complicated than traditional PR. Maybe we'll need to think of PR as a subset of social media.

The best advice I saw boiled down to setting targets for something measurable, and then watching whether you reach them. This is pretty much the best practice for measuring public relations and other marketing programs without a direct impact on sales. I guess there’s nothing surprising about this, although I was still a bit disappointed.

Still, as I say, there is plenty of interesting material available if you want to learn about concrete measurements and how people use them. Just about every hit on the first two pages of a Google search on “social media marketing measurement” was valuable. In particular, I kept tripping across Jeremiah Owyang, currently an analyst with Forrester Research, who has created many useful lists on his Web Strategy by Jeremiah blog. For example, the post Social Media FAQ #3: How Do I Measure ROI? provides a good overview of the subject. You can also search his category of Social Media Measurement. Another post I found helpful was What Is The ROI For Social Media? from Jason Falls’ Social Media Explorer blog.

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