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Ten Things to Know About Measuring Social Media

This column is written by guest writer Jim Sterne, whose credentials in Web Metrics & Analytics are second to none. He is:

  1. Author of "Proven Methods for Measuring Web Site Success";
  2. The big daddy of the eMetrics Summit;
  3. Co-Founder of the Web Metrics & Analytics Association

Here are Jim Sterne's picks for how to measure social media. -Larry Chase

If you believe that social media is all about your customers being able to talk to each other online, then it's time to go back and read the Cluetrain Manifesto from 1999. The basic premise is that the marketplace is a conversation. That does not mean that social media is a new tool to push your message out there. It's a new tool to help you converse. Companies must listen or die.

Only one problem. Those who hold the keys to the kingdom (read: budget) want to know the ROI. They want to know how you're going to measure this new-fangled thing. Here's what you need to know in order to hold your own in those conversations.

1. Ya Gotta Getta Goal

The first thing that comes to mind with social media is that we want to use it to get the consumer to interact with the brand. We tend to think about social media in terms of customer engagement. Are customers paying attention? Eric Peterson defined engagement as "an estimate of the degree and depth of visitor interaction on the site against a clearly defined set of goals".

The newest way to communicate with customers does not negate time-honored business practices. Nothing is worth doing for its own sake. So pick a goal, even if it's just to learn about whether this is going to work for your company or not. But be ready to measure whether your education was successful.

A decent goal must not only be about directional intent, but include quantitative and temporal attributes. It's great that you want to increase customer satisfaction or sales, but by how much? And how soon? In the meantime, there are a number of discrete social media elements you can measure.

2. Sum Up Your Subscribers

How many people are listening? How many subscribe to your RSS feeds, your email newsletters, your Twitterings, your YouTube channel or your FaceBook account, etc.? This is a simple metric, and ever so slightly deceptive if you don't account for subscriber fatigue. 250,000 subscribers? Wonderful. But how many of them are actually information consumers? People are happy to sign up and then ignore, rather than unsubscribe. This isn't your basic churn or attrition where you can count those who drop off your list. These people simply don't continue to read your feeds and don't open your email even though they are still on the list. They are not engaged with your brand. They no longer hang on your every word.

3. Assess Awareness

With subscriber fatigue skewing the count of how many people are actually tuned in, it's important to rely on a tried and true metric called awareness. The advertising industry has long used this public survey method to find out what percent of the population has ever heard of you, what they've heard and how they feel about you.

The request to: "Name three airlines / dishwashers / home builders", is followed by "Have you ever heard of XYZ Corp"? Next come the questions about what XYZ Corp means in their hearts and minds. Does Nordstroms stand for luxury and WalMart for low price? Or do the phrases "wildly expensive" and "community destructive" show up more than you'd like?

With all of these, you'll want to start with a baseline. If 28% of them think this and 35% say that, you have no gauge to determine if those figures are good bad or indifferent. But once you have an awareness baseline, you can continue to read the numbers to see if your social media investments have any impact on the results.

4. Parse Out Your Participants

Totting up the number of people who subscribe to your outpourings is only the first step in the dance of creating a relationship with your marketplace. Absorbing your pearls of wisdom is level one. The next metric is the number of people you can get to actively participate in some aspect of the social media activities that you participate in or create. Measure how many people post to your online discussion group, comment on your blog posts, upload pictures and videos and/or answer your surveys. How many willingly sign up to be part of your online customer advisory council? These are people who care enough to a) have an opinion, and b) express it. They are pure gold. They are engaged. They are involved.

5. Figure Your Forwarders

Between the passive consumers and the active contributors lies a class of people who are the connective tissue in this network. They are the ones who pass along your message. You can count them by the number of blog post trackbacks, inbound links, tell-a-friend pass alongs, diggs and del.icio.us-nesses. This layer is vital to your social media strategy, as they are the conduit to those who might not otherwise know about you or hear of your talents and value.

Soon, you'll be looking to comScore Widget Metrix to count up the number of widget adopters you've attracted. Whatsa widget? It's a small, branded application that can live on others' Web pages. Thousands of FaceBookers will want to host your latest party game, parlor trick, entertaining gizmo or tiny, useful software application. Viral, yet sticky.

6. Assess Attitude

Only in Hollywood is it true that there's no such thing as bad press. Oscar Wilde was only right about celebrities when he said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about". Large numbers of people posting unpleasant opinions about you is not good for business.

When you invest in a social media project which results in you becoming the laughing stock of the Internet, it would be good to know that it's time to change tactics. When something your firm has published is received badly, you need to be on the listening end and ready, willing and able to respond openly, honestly and speedily. Yes, you want to monitor how often your name is mentioned, but you need to layer that with whether the mentions are good or ill. It's a qualitative calculation as well as a quantitative one.

7. Rely On Ratios

Numbers are great for bar charts showing progress over time, but they do nothing to help drive business decisions. Your measurements must be actionable to be valuable. There's nothing worse than a calculation that has a negative ROI - a metric that costs more to collect and calculate than it delivered back in any P&L-positive business decision.

Don't print out and deliver reports, but set up a dynamic dashboard that lets you compare the number of comments per post for a given subject matter or the number of forwards per subscriber for a newsletter. Calculate the ratio of social media-driven website visitors who complete on-site tasks vs. those who found you via search engines. Figure out the comparative impact of your social media projects so you can clearly determine which are working and which are not. The possibilities are many and depend on your business goals.

8. Did It Drive Traffic?

This is one of many intermediate metrics you can use to your advantage. Between the social butterflies buzzing about you and the your true end goals (see #9), there are some figures that can help determine whether your efforts are having any impact at all.

Did your investment in participating in those Yahoo discussion groups bring people to your website? Did those people stay longer than people who came to you from other sources? Did they look at more pages? Come back more often? Were those people more engaged on your site? Did the people who uploaded pictures to your contest forward your newsletter more than others? You want to measure whether your actions evoked actions in others.

9. Ya Gotta Getta Goal - Reloaded

Your well defined goals, attributed with specific amounts and deadlines and fully aligned with your business strategies, are the only metrics that matter. All the rest are just to help gauge whether you are headed in the right direction or headed off track.

These specific business goals are eminently measurable and tangible. They are the successful completion of your prospective customer Calls to Action. They are contacts, leads, sales, dollars saved and accumulated good will. They are the very goals every company has: earn more, spend less and increase customer satisfaction. And now you have a new way to trigger those actions so long as you are careful, clever, measure well and use the results to make prudent business decisions.

10. The WAA Is Working On Standards

One more thing you should know: The Web Analytics Association is actively pursuing a set of standards for measuring social media. These are early days - there are no maps or guidebooks to this territory. But the WAA's Social Media and Standards Committee is fully engaged in frothy discussions and welcomes your participation if you are so inclined: The Web Analytics Association.

Yes, measuring the success of your social media efforts is a bit more complex than counting up your MySpace friends. But the upside is worth the effort.