Evolving Social Media Metrics Signal a Change
Mark Cameron


The proportion of marketing budgets that gets allocated to the digital and social media space is growing inexorably. As a consequence, the focus on how to measure return on investment is intensifying. There is much debate about how to best design social media metrics. This is a symptom of the tension between “digital as add-on” marketing and “digital first” marketing—or digital marketing the way it really should be. The power is shifting, and a new frame of reference is becoming clearer.

To understand this concept of “digital first” marketing, it’s important to examine where we have come from. A little while ago digital marketing was viewed as the “add on” communication touch-point. It was a second-class citizen, constantly overshadowed by the marketing spend on television, radio and print. That position is rapidly changing and has been accelerated by behavioral changes that have followed the Global Financial Crisis. Digital marketing, social media communications and data utilization in particular are now leading the charge for the smartest brands world-wide. And this is where the tension lies. Many marketers have come from a traditional background. They want to measure social media using the methods and metrics developed and tested in the traditional marketing spaces. But this approach fails to capture the true value of social media and can produce a completely inaccurate assessment of effectiveness. It’s like using an hourglass to measure the speed of a jet plane and then wondering why it’s not accurate. The two are simply not compatible.

The “digital as add-on” marketing world developed the way it has because marketers tried to force rules designed for traditional print and television media onto digital media. This approach focused on spikes in activity and classifying audiences into broad segments. They did not attempt to understand individual viewers, because that simply was not possible for broadcast media. The “digital first” approach must and will discard traditional rules, and develop techniques and measurements that focus on building long term relationships with individual customers. The new world is about delivering “personalization in scale.”

Social media is relatively new to the marketing scene but search marketing has been around for much longer. When a consumer uses a search engine, they are focused on finding what they want, and in the quickest possible way. They are displaying “search and buy” behavior. To put it another way, they are in “buy mode.” Paid search marketing, such as Google AdWords, relies on this behavior and displays ads that are aligned to the viewer’s search results. As they click on these ads we can quickly determine if this has been effective or not.

Social media is different. People are not necessarily in “buy mode”. They are interacting with their networks—they are in “social mode.” They may be telling the world that something in their life has changed which could suggest that a new product or service might be suitable, but they are not actively looking for it. Individuals enter the social mode early in the sales cycle, and that is what makes social media platforms so potentially valuable. If people connect with your brand early enough they may bypass the search and price comparison step altogether.

When consumers are in social mode they behave very differently than they do elsewhere on the web. They share, connect and have conversations. They complain, praise and ignore. In short they involve themselves in developing relationships, and they expect the same from the brands they interact with. In this mode the hard sell will get the same kind of cold reaction as a sales pitch at a wedding.

While social media channels were in the early stages of development, the methods of measuring a brand’s marketing success mattered less. Now that social media channels are eating up an ever-increasing amount of market share (at the expense of other digital and more traditional channels), it has become vital that marketers deal with the measurement issue. Consumers are moving away from a “search and buy” mentality—driven by instant access to search engines and a desire for the best price—to a “browse and discover” mind set. In other words, another stage in people’s shopping habits has also moved online. Social media has been the catalyst for this and it will accelerate in the coming years.

It’s clear then that to measure the marketing performance of social media channels, different and more sophisticated metrics need to be developed. We need to have a much more holistic view of the customer’s online journey and be able to connect social media with other online activities. Let’s examine some of the factors we need to take into account.

Data Value

There are many ways to look at social media marketing activity. My advice is to start with data. Different platforms give you access to different types of data. Facebook, for example, gives you the ability to gather email addresses, demographic information and, if analyzed in the right way, psychographic data. If you can work out what is valuable to your brand and how that might be used to convert potential customers, developing an ROI framework that connects the “digital dots” becomes much easier. As the New York Times stated in an article called “Marketers Celebrate Glimmers of Recovery” back in 2011, “Data rules … content may be king in media, but in advertising, it is data.”

Direct and Indirect Conversions

Do you know what part social media plays in customer purchase decisions? A social media interaction may result in an immediate conversion or it may help influence the process in a more indirect way. These two types of conversion, one focused on the last interaction before the conversion, and the other focused on the number of interactions in the path to conversion, must be compared to get a clear view of the true value of your social media efforts.

The Quality of Your Content

Your content may not be “king” but it is the fuel that brings the engine of your social media strategy to life. The technology means nothing to your market. It is the content they interact with. You need to know what type of content they respond to and what type of behaviors they display when they do. Tagging and measuring social media activity by its intended function (sales, customer service, brand development, conversational, thought leadership) allows you to optimize your content and see what really drives results.

Social vs. Search vs. Display Ad Traffic

Do you have a model to work out how much the site traffic generated by social media activity would have cost had it been generated by paid search marketing or display ads? It’s a calculation that can make a big difference when you are deciding where to direct your resources.

There are many other ways of identifying the real value of social media to your brand. What is important is that you spend the time necessary to get something meaningful that aligns to your business objectives.

The world needs to move away from viewing digital media through the lens developed for traditional media. We need to value each customer as if they were in the same room and speaking directly to us. Let’s be smarter and take the next step. Your customers will love you for it.


Mark Cameron is CEO and lead strategist of social media conversion and commercialization agency Working Three. While his agency is based in Melbourne, Australia, he works for some of the world’s most innovative and forward-thinking brands. As a regular speaker and writer on social media and digital strategy, Mark stays focused on customers and outcomes, not the technology, leading to simple strategic conclusions.