Billions and Billions Served

Last week, I attended ad:tech in San Francisco. As always, it was a great conference with lots of great ideas presented along with the case studies to back them up.

The issues faced when engaging social channels for bona fide marketing were explored in a number of ad:tech sessions. Here, I’ll go over some of the easy entry points to measuring participation on the social Web and the metrics available now to guide you.

During a panel led by eMarketer senior analyst Debra Aho Williamson, the audience heard about a recent Target social media initiative. Panelists Jason Kleckner, Target’s information architecture manager, Jason Ring, AKQA’s creative director, identified two best practices: be transparent and measure success.

Who could argue with either of those? Transparency is the absolute first requirement for any social campaign. As I’ve noted in prior columns, if you can’t articulate your strategy for disclosure before you start the actual campaign then you really ought to rethink that campaign. The second point — measure success — is essential but for a different reason.

Transparency helps to build a brand’s social currency. Disclosure helps to establish trust, and trust is key to acceptance, especially for a marketer, on the social Web. By comparison, measuring success is both a real-time guide and a way to benchmark the value of social efforts so you can raise that value over time. Without measurement, your social campaigns are, at best, a series of good ideas that perhaps make intuitive sense.

So what was measured? Diving into Target’s “Back to School” social campaign implemented in part on Facebook, measures included the number of fans (essentially, people who give you direct permission to e-mail and communicate — a definite step above the normally guarded Facebook communications channels) and the amount of time spent. Although it was noted that “sales went up,” Target apparently didn’t measure the social program’s actual contribution versus the TV, print, and direct campaigns that also supported Target’s back-to-school sales drive. This isn’t at all a knock on the program. By all measured accounts, it was successful. The issue of teasing apart the impact of any individual channel in a broadly integrated effort is long-standing. The campaign was well done, and the number of fans (tens of thousands) supports this claim. Instead, it’s again another indication of the need for new metrics that compliment existing metrics: Think back to high school algebra: With the equation for something like “3 + X = 7” it’s pretty easy to solve for “X.” When it’s “3 + X + Y + Z = 7” it’s a bit harder. You need more data, and it must come from multiple, independent sources.

One of those independent sources — by independent I mean data relating to actions that don’t occur in other channels — is the social Web itself. Conversations that occur on the social Web don’t occur in other channels. Measure the conversations, compare that data with traditional metrics, and you’ll find ways to quantify the impact of your social efforts.

Last week, I was talking with colleague, Bazaarvoice CEO Brett Hurt, who pointed out a statistic that blew me away. Since its launch in few years ago, Bazaarvoice has now served up more than 10 billion reviews. The reviews are tallied in real-time at the Bazaarvoice Web site. OK, so maybe Google serves that many searches in an afternoon, but there’s a big difference between someone looking for you and someone telling others what she thinks about you.

Ten billion reviews translate into measurable data that relates directly to the social Web. What’s more, this trend in reviews is accelerating. Across its combined client base, it’s serving between one billion and two billion reviews per month. This means that Bazaarvoice has enough statistically valid data to enable clients to engage in an operations program aimed at changing the customer experience and then directly measure the impact as seen by the social Web in the very next buying cycle. Operations, rather than “message control,” is of course the right way to manage social conversations. Bazaarvoice is effectively providing an EKG that operates at the holistic operations plus marketing level. That’s the kind of data, in real-time, and and feedback that’s essential in not only navigating the social Web but winning on it.

I spent a couple of days with Friend2Friend CEO Roger Katz as well. The company enables friends to share product recommendations and opinions across the social Web. (Disclosure: I’m an advisor to Friend2Friend.) Its Product Pulse is a social marketing application, currently available on Facebook and MySpace. It gets brands, products, and services into the conversation on social networks and invites comments — both positive and negative — from members. We reviewed ProductPulse’s recent campaigns with The North Face, Timbuk2, and Mountain Hardwear and again it stood out that these types of applications offer very granular data — and importantly data that are independent of the other existing metrics available for in-campaign and post-campaign analysis. Beyond the reach-related numbers collected during the campaigns, detailed comments are generated by participants. The comment content is measurable. For example, the Mountain Hardwear program ran five weeks, engaged about 20,000 people in the campaign, and generated about 8,000 comments and five million social impressions across Facebook. “ProductPulse got people talking about Mountain Hardwear products on Facebook, said Chris Strasser, promotions project manager, Mountain Hardware, “something we couldn’t do with banners.” Moreover, this type of marketing/social integration is readily accepted by social network members: Product Pulse is now in the top 3 percent of all Facebook application…and it’s beyond throwing sheep.

As you venture onto the social Web, all personal biases aside, you should keep in mind the importance of collecting everything you can get you hands on. Take the time to separate –quantitatively — what stands up as a social metric. In particular, focus on the data available to you on the social Web such as the measures of conversational intensity and polarity, product ratings, reviews, recommendations, the actual numbers of comments and so on. Get beyond how many people are involved, e.g., the number of fans or campaign participants, and get into what they are doing. To be sure, how may are involved is great to know; it helps validate scale. But at the same time, make use of available tools to get a handle on what participants are actually doing.

According to the Bazaarvoice bazaarblog, over 70 of the top 100 retailer have or will soon have reviews built into their online platforms, up from the five (including Amazon) that offered this when Bazaarvoice first launched. This is the type of independent data needed to effectively gauge the channel-specific contributions of your social programs, and to therefore validate or suggest ways of improvement for the next go-around. It’s the scientific process, applied to social marketing.

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