Measuring Facebook: The Problem With Metric Changes

Brands have embraced Facebook Timeline, but with new, exciting marketing offerings on the platform come a new set of headaches for Facebook data crunchers. It’s the double-edged sword of Facebook measurement: As the company refines and arguably improves metrics for marketers, it inevitably disrupts the way people track pages – and now Timelines. The lack of standards can be crippling.

In a sweeping change made to Facebook Insights for pages late last year, the company replaced some of its old metrics such as Active Users with Reach. Though the metric is similar, it makes it difficult for brands to have a crisp view of their Facebook marketing efforts over time.

Now that Timelines are available for brands, marketers and their social media agencies are bracing for a new round of Insights changes. Also on the horizon is the anticipated launch of real-time Insights, which should help alleviate a major obstacle for Facebook marketers who currently rely on Insights data that reflects user activity that can be several days old.

Marketers often have little or no warning that changes are coming. In the past, for example, Misi McClelland, metrics and media director at Ignite Social Media, discovered an Insights change only on the day it went into effect, like many others tracking brand pages. New metrics often replace or enhance old ones, meaning spreadsheets and databases must be altered on the fly.

Recently-introduced metrics such as “Reach” and “People Talking About This” essentially replaced “Active Users” and “Stream Views.” The idea is to provide marketers with a more nuanced understanding of what’s really happening on their pages and how people are responding to the content they publish there.

Many see the Reach metric as an improvement on the old active user metric, but challenges remain. Because it doesn’t allow page marketers to de-duplicate unique people reached, it’s difficult to measure reach of a post over multiple days. “I can’t add [reach on two consecutive days] together to actually get the total number of people reached,” said Matthew Wurst, director of brand strategy and emerging media at social agency 360i. The metric is “somewhat helpful, but it’s not fully answering the questions or the challenges we have,” he said.

The time lag in Insights data also continues to plague Facebook marketers. The Insights numbers available on Wednesday March 14 reflected interactions made through Sunday March 11. And sometimes the numbers are as much as a week old, meaning marketers are reliant on days-old data to optimize pages and related ad campaigns. On February 29, Facebook said it would make real-time Insights data available to brands “in the next few weeks.”

Marketers may gripe about Facebook Insights and the company’s approach to morphing metrics, but many believe Insights has improved overall. “It’s a lot further along than it’s been,” said Wurst. At this stage, he said, the best approach to page measurement is the combination of Facebook Insights and analysts like him. “It’s probably our best resource,” he said.

“What Facebook is trying to do is very valuable,” said Peter Heffring, CEO of Expion, a social media measurement firm serving clients including Applebees and H&R Block. Not only do the more refined metrics improve understanding of user interactions on Facebook, they could also be intended to help the company compete with other media.

“They’re trying to show the value of their impressions as they compare to other media,” suggested Heffring.

Although companies like Expion, Buddy Media and Vitrue help brands and agencies manage and track their Facebook pages and other social media, the ongoing evolution of Facebook Insights – and for that matter the products they measure – in some ways deters third party tech firms from developing their own standardized metrics and tools.

“I think Facebook measurement is continuing to evolve in a way that meet the growing demands of marketers, but as the Facebook platform evolves our questions will evolve,” said Wurst. However, he added, “The onus shouldn’t have to be on Facebook to solve all these questions for us.”

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