Most social media “gurus” will be quick to point out that activity-based metrics such as number of posts, followers, or re-tweets are meaningless because they don’t measure real business value. I’m going to take a contrarian viewpoint today and explain that in the real world, these simple measurements are not only useful, they may be critical.

A few years ago, I was working as a consultant on a new marketing initiative for an extremely conservative, slow-moving company.  As we were getting to know each other, I asked the people around the table “If we gathered here a year from now and you told me that our initiative had been wildly successful, what would have been achieved?”

One of the veterans of the team spoke up: “I would like to see that something … anything … actually HAPPENED!”

This may seem like a sad little tale, but don’t you see this reluctance to change in so many companies?

In praise of progress

This highlights a very important point: In the real world, sometimes CHANGE needs to be the business goal before you can start chalking up business benefits like leads or sales. In fact, a simple indicator of progress may be the most important goal you can possibly have for an early social media program.

You see, for a slow-moving company immersed in a digital transition, budget, resources, and a plan of action are not going to guarantee success if the company culture does not support the effort.

To lead an initiative that eventually creates business results, you need to have an effort that is active, sustained, and consistent. Early on, it’s important to show that we are achieving an activity level — that SOMETHING is happening!  That’s why unpopular metrics such as posts per month, audience growth, or even number of “likes” may be absolutely critical to a fledgling effort in a conservative company.

Keep it moving

The simple act of forward progress may be the most important goal of all, and a leading indicator of better things to come! Here are examples of simple metrics that can indicate rising activity levels and a company culture moving in the right direction:

  • Number of employees actively posting
  • Number of content posts per month
  • Audience size (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.)
  • Number of social mentions
  • Number of blog/Facebook comment
  • Number of departments participating
  • Traffic to social sites
  • Binary measures such as “did we create a Facebook page” a YouTube channel or a blog.  Did we attend social media training? Did we have an executive social media workshops, etc

While it is true that none of these would necessarily indicate an alignment with sales objectives, without consistent participation and a growing audience, you will never get to the point where finding business benefits is achievable. We have to walk before we can run.

There are four other benefits to these simple metrics.

  1. It drives the right behavior in the organization at this early stage.
  2. It is fairly easy to observe quick progress that leads to achievable milestones and momentum.
  3. The metrics are very easy to collect and understand (compared to something like bounce rate or reach).
  4. Finally, no matter how well you plan, you can never predict exactly what is going to happen once you go down this road. You may find unexpected benefits, and consequently unexpected new metrics, that illustrate your progress. Don’t try to over-think everything up front. At some point, doing it is more important than planning it.

So if you’re just starting out in a conservative company culture, I would encourage you to look for simple metrics that provide an indication of progress. There is no rule that says you can’t add or change metrics nine months down the road as your initiative begins to mature.

Make sense to you?

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.
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