The challenge of measuring social media Article icon


With great data comes great responsibility. With more brands than you can shake a stick at competing for attention on a growing number of social media channels, making sense of the resultant huge amount of data has become increasingly difficult.

Comms is developing so quickly but measurement isn't catching up,’ says Katie Buckett, co-founder of consultancy OneFifty. ‘What might have worked before just doesn't have a relevance now.’one

‘The pace of innovation produces a problem for how you standardise measurement,’ says George Cathcart, social lead at agency Threepipe. ‘A while ago, Facebook was determining success on how many fans you had; it was selling Likes. It then turned around and said <i>That’s no longer important</i> and organic reach disappeared.

‘Engagement is the most clear marker of how well you’re doing, but Facebook has played down the engagement piece and offered new metrics and custom measurement frameworks. It creates even more of a headache.’

Indeed, what poses a large problem for social media practitioners is the lack of a measurement standard. This is due to the rise of platforms like Snapchat, whose story format is hard to measure, alongside the fact that organisations are playing their cards closer to their chests as the value of data insights to their company increases.

‘[Social media analytics tools] are not as good as they used to be,’ explains Cathcart. ‘[They] launched before organic reach tanked. Things were more democratic in terms of engagement and you could be confident that nothing else was going on. Most people in social were supporting with the same level of paid activity. That model broke. What [analytics tools] are good for is benchmarking content and fans but it’s not as powerful a tool as it used to be because companies rely on private data. It all depends on how important it is to compare yourself against others.

‘The golden ticket would be an agreement between brands on how everyone should be measuring [their work]. It would take mass sharing of private data but data is worth a lot of money. It’s not going to happen.’

Similarly, the industry also lacks a tool that effectively measures each output and outcome a company could wish for. What tool is used depends on what is being measured, whether firms are using social to drive sales or brand awareness, get people to click through to their website or share their content.

Erin Salisbury, senior project manager at Ketchum, explains: ‘We start with the objectives: how does that align with what we are doing? We’re trying to prove the value of what we do, earn every dollar, earn our stripes.

‘Our objectives are closely linked to outputs, which we describe as low-hanging fruit, such as impressions. This all funnels down to outcomes: is our audience doing what we want them to do, whether that’s clicking through to a website or buying a product? We look at how people are actually acting. There are a lot of layers across the whole consumer journey, from Are they thinking about us? all the way through to advocacy.’

However, Salisbury warns: ‘There’s no one size fits all solution to measurement. We all want to adhere to best practice. Tools are so dependent on what it is our clients are trying to do.’

It's unrealistic to think there's one metric,’ Buckett agrees. ‘Ultimately it needs to move beyond comms metrics towards quantifying what you're achieving for the business. That's when we'll start showing the true value of comms. The hope of having one metric is the lazy way out.’

It is important to find a level of consistency in the metrics chosen, though there are so many to choose from.

Start every year by defining the metrics for that moment, even if six months down the line that’s called into question,’ says Cathcart. On Facebook, for example, each post has a different tracking link which makes it easy to see which ones drive the most engagement. ‘If you’re consistent, look back on how you’ve done for the entire year, see exactly how many sales were made through Facebook or Twitter,’ concludes Cathcart.

Buckett agrees that consistency is key. ‘If you don't measure, how do you know what will work or your start point?’ she asks. ‘It's all too easy to jump straight into creative, but measuring first will pay off long-term. Ultimately, we need to show value.’

But with smaller budgets and more emphasis on the bottom line, how can social media managers show that value in a clear way?

‘It's more about understanding that there is a way to be accountable and measurable. It's not a five minute quick fix but we can show value, if we want to,’ says Buckett. ‘Now metrics have moved to reach and engagement, which are relevant, but only within the context of what they mean to the bigger picture. What does that drive for your business? There's a limited time now until it will no longer be acceptable not to have an answer.’

There’s a consistent education piece,’ says Salisbury. ‘Some clients are more sophisticated than others. We get clients with backgrounds in a bunch of different areas; we’re always connecting data and tailoring it to different audiences. It’s our responsibility [to use measurement and evaluation to understand a cohesive story and find trends across data].’

Cathcart believes that organisations are becoming more discerning about social media. Initially, they were under pressure to be visible across all social media channels, but as platforms have developed and new ones have sprung up, they are now considering the cost.

‘Return on investment and marketing spend has cropped up again; there’s a problem with budgets,’ continues Cathcart. ‘Two or three years ago, budgets were more loose and open, but now companies are looking for a controlled return. It is important to display more rigour and transparency over what money is going to achieve.’

Fortunately, in this case, more money doesn’t necessarily buy better tools. Both Cathcart and Salisbury believe that the ‘vanilla’ analytics built into the likes of Facebook and Twitter have come a long way since the beginning.

‘We post across Facebook and Twitter, and generally use the native analytics within those tools,’ says Salisbury. ‘Then we might put a third part listening tool on it, which listens more generally to what’s going on. We have preferred partners but as a team, we’re generally tool agnostic.’

‘A lot of people get hung up on tools but there’s a lot you can divine from looking on a platform itself,’ agrees Cathcart. ‘Where third parties come in is data manipulation, making it look pretty. It’s a time-saving middle man really.’

‘People are throwing too much money at tools when mostly platforms have excellent analytics,’ says John Brown, head of engagement at Hotwire. ‘Facebook’s analytics are brilliant and Google Analytics will give you a good picture. Don’t overthink it.’

Social media managers may wish they had never got into such a complicated business, but that is not for them to decide.  All they have to decide is what to do with the data that is given to them. It’s important to know when to stay still and when to shift everything up,’ says Cathcart. ‘Your metrics need to be relevant and attainable.’

‘There's isn't a golden bullet here. Measurement deserves and, at this point in comms, needs to be done properly, because it's then that you'll get the real value from it – insights and learnings on what genuinely worked and what you can take going forward,’ asserts Buckett.

‘I don’t think it’s the tools that are outdated; it’s thinking that’s outdated,’ says Brown. ‘People are too focused on how many posts they are getting out, how many retweets they get. They need to look at content.’

‘It’s not just about what we’re putting out there, it’s about the customer doing what we want them to do it with it,’ says Salisbury. ‘What we want to do in public relations is move up the strategy food chain. We want to get up front and be a data-driven organisation, empowering teams not to be stuck in a PR box and to be present at those initial conversations.’

So next time you see your friendly neighbourhood social media manager, perhaps invite them to your next board meeting. The information they have gleaned from poring over social media reports may just save the day.