Measuring the impact of social media has to move beyond the idea that it’s going to drive clicks and move toward measuring influence, participation, engagement, and, yes, delight.
We humans never seem to run out of ways of dividing the world…or ourselves. Whether it’s politics (left vs. right), technology (digital vs. analog), morality (right vs. wrong), and even light beers (“less filling” vs. “tastes great”…though it’s my understanding that this debate has been resolved).
If there’s a way to simplify and categorize things we tend to do it, mainly because it makes life (seem) a lot simpler and easier to handle. And humans like “simpler” and “easier to handle.”
The intertwined worlds of business and communication that we marketers dwell in isn’t immune from this desire to categorize and simplify. Our jobs are a lot easier when we can divide our audiences into categories like “customer” and “prospect” and keep score of our success by looking at things like “leads” or “sales.”
Ambiguity Isn’t an Option
We like results. We like data. We hate “maybes” and “sortas.” We hate squishiness (and our bosses tend to hate it even more). Profits are either up or down and we’d better be contributing to the “up” category or risk going from “employed” to “unemployed.”
It’s probably safe to say that the Internet’s digital nature and online advertising’s measurability is one of the reasons for the continued movement of ad dollars from “traditional” marketing to digital marketing.
While the inherent squishiness of the “traditional” marketing world once drove department store mogul Jon Wannamaker to quip “I know half my advertising doesn’t work…I just don’t know which half,” today that statement sounds dated and quaint. Not only do we know for sure which half isn’t working, but we know at what time of the day it’s not working, for which countries, and for what channels. But while Wannamaker had to grumble and bear it, we don’t: once we identify what’s not working we and jump in and change things on the fly. As long as we can keep track of the KPIs on our CPC, CPL, CPA, and CPM buys, calculating ROI is SOP.
But Then There’s Social Media…
Ahhh…social media! In 90 percent of agencies these days, you can’t swing an account planner around your head without knocking down a few “social media experts” … a situation that’s not surprising when you consider that 7 out of 10 companies say that they see social media as “integral” to their marketing and business strategies, according to a recent survey by eConsultancy. And they’d better, too: 81 percent of C-level executives surveyed believe that “CEOs who engage in social media are better equipped than their peers to lead companies in a web 2.0 world,” according to BRANDfog’s recent Social Media Leadership Survey.
One message is clear: you’d better hop on that social media bandwagon or you’re going to be left on the side of the Web 1.0 Information Superhighway.
But while it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon, it’s quite another thing to take the reins and control the ride. While the eConsultancy survey makes it clear that social media’s become important to business, the same survey also found that most companies (2/3rds) didn’t have any clear way of measuring what they were doing social media-wise and most weren’t bothering to measure the performance of their activities against their social media objectives. Most weren’t even measuring revenue generated by social media efforts, though large companies seemed to be more interested in tracking social media revenue generation than small companies (23 percent vs. 17 percent).
Lack of hard numbers justifying continued investment doesn’t seem to be slowing many down: another recent survey of CMO club members found that around 75 percent of CMOs surveyed “believed” that social media efforts were having a positive impact on sales.
Don’t Stop Believin’?
But should we keep believin’? In a world with about a billion Facebook users (including around 50 percent of the U.S. population), a world where mobile social media usage has increased more than 30 percent in the past year, a world where 144 characters tweeted by the right person at the right time can catapult a 13-year-old into instant stardom or even start a revolution, it seems kinda nuts notto believe that social media has to be a big part of the marketing mix.
But without measurable results (or even much of an effort even try to measure results), it may be only a matter of time until hard-nosed, numbers-driven, quarterly-earnings-obsessed businesses start seriously questioning their social media efforts. After all, nobody’s more metrics-driven than Wall Street and Wall Street’s certainly not been too kind to Facebook, even with their billion or so sets of eyeballs.
It’s also somewhat telling that currently only 16 percent of CEOs participate in social media themselves (though the majority promise that they will in 3-5 years). Even financial juggernaut Fortune has reported that “the social media bubble” has “popped,” (pointing to high-profile stock market disappointments like Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon. After the hype died down, investors just didn’t see the numbers to justify the stratospheric IPO prices of these companies. The metrics just aren’t there.
It may not be too long before advertisers start to say the same thing. A sobering May 2012 study by WordStream comparing Google to Facebook found that Facebook’s click-through rate (0.051 percent) was 8 times less than Google’s (0.4 percent) and only about half of the overall average click-through rate (0.1 percent).
In the U.S. presidential race, the parties are projected to spend twice what they spent on social media in 2008, but a just-released Pew study found that only 16 percent of social network users reported that social media changed their political views. And while both B2B and B2C companies continue to spend big bucks on social media, SEO and PPC advertising still accounts for nearly 80 percent of the leads generated by their marketing efforts. Pretty gloomy stuff.
Yes, the numbers don’t look so good. Performance on social media campaigns seems tough to measure, and when we measure the performance (clicks generated) social media seems pretty dismal as an advertising medium. Search and display generate more clicks and search dominates when it comes to generating leads.
Wall Street, grumpily hung over from the social media party of the last 12 months, has been flushing big social media companies down the tank. Heck, most companies aren’t even trying to measure their social media success. The bubble’s popped and it’s time to start looking somewhere else, right?
Wrong. The reason that the numbers suck (even when you can measure them) is because we’re not only looking at the wrong numbers, we’re using the wrong methods to try to generate them based on what’s worked in the past.
Waiting For the Social Turning Point
In the early days of online advertising, many advertisers new to the medium had trouble because they tried to take the models that worked in “traditional” advertising and apply them to the Web. The result was horrors like the once-ubiquitous “Flash Intro,” the obnoxious and annoying pop-up ad (not that they’ve gone away, unfortunately), and spam. The idea was that the Web was somehow like TV (it’s on a screen, after all!) and if TV worked by interrupting what you were doing then that’s how the Web worked, too.
Early corporate “brochureware” websites (check out Microsoft’s if you haven’t recently eaten) were born from the theory that the web was just like print, only on a screen. The “portal craze” of the late ’90’s came directly out of the traditional media mindset that believed that consumers needed to be corralled (or “owned” in the parlance of the time). Nutty disasters like the CueCat URL-launching bar code reader were hatched from the minds of marketers who thought that “all this techno stuff” was “too scary” for consumers to handle.
Obviously we’ve learned a lot by then. Google’s paid search model was probably the most innovative turning point, recognizing that ads that helped consumers find what they were looking for (and didn’t interrupt them or try to control their behavior) fit perfectly into how people used this new medium. Other innovations such as contextually-targeted and behaviorally-targeted advertising (while they still have their problems) recognized that by marrying advertising to content or serving up ads based on what people were interested in worked a lot better than slapping them in the face with irrelevant, intrusive messages.
New Media Requires New Models of Marketing
Just as it took a while for us to figure out how the web worked (and how consumers used it), we’re now at the stage where we need to figure out how social media works and how consumers use it before we can start developing methods and models that work – and we even need to redefine what “working” means. Time and time again we’ve discovered that simply porting old models and old metrics to new media doesn’t work.
Social media presents a unique problem because it’s about people (social…duh!) and about facilitating their conversations. We need to have models and metrics that recognize what’s at the core of the medium. This is what Google did with search marketing: they recognized that the reason consumers used search engines was to find stuff (search…duh!) and they developed a model that worked with that behavior. They also developed a complementary measurement and pricing model, recognizing that actions were more important than eyeballs.
Social media marketing today is where search was prior to AdWords’ launch in 2000. We’re using marketing models and metrics ignore the fact that conversations aren’t as quantifiable as clicks.
The reason that nobody clicks on Facebook ads is because they get in the way of why people are on Facebook: to talk to each other, not to find products and services. “Marketing” in social media has to be about facilitating conversations, not interrupting them. Measuring the impact of social media has to move beyond the idea that it’s going to drive clicks and move toward measuring influence, participation, engagement, and, yes, delight.
Is this going to drive the numbers people crazy for a while until we figure it out? It sure is. But participating in social media means engaging with people and, as anyone who’s ever had to deal with people knows, people can be a little crazy. It may be that if your brand can just get a little crazy you should go home.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
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