A surprising insight on social media measurement: Activity does matter


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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  • Dave

    Hi Mark,
    That’s a very good point. These slow organizations have no practice at changing anything. That answer to your question brought back memories of when I was a corporate non-entity, where creativity was viewed as bad, or at least suspicious. Something like social media would have been scorned. It IS sad.

    So if they at least begin the habit and keep at it for awhile, it may actually stick!
    Best, Dave

  • Robert Burns

    Wow! Mark, this post really hits home , especially your point about change being a business goal (conservative companies). Hope you spend some time on this in September at Rutgers, I’ll be there

  • First, asking the question about “what success looks like” is perhaps the most critical thing you can ask when beginning to work with a company. Otherwise, you don’t know what to measure.

    In this case, activity mattered. And, even in the cases where the goal is leads and sales, measuring activity can help you understand what led to those leads and sales. Does more activity lead to more sales? Does certain content generate more interest? You don’t know that without paying attention to activity. Activity might not be the only thing you should measure, but it shouldn’t be overlooked either.

  • My thoughts exactly Dave.

  • Looking forward to seeing in the Rutgers program my friend! Many of the stories I tell will be familiar to you since you read the blog! I’m actually updating all my teaching materials now!

  • Thanks for sharing your wisdom today Laura. Great point.

  • RandyBowden

    Spending a little time in the NPO world taught me the true meaning of “just do it!” Working with an organization that had been stuck-in-the-mud for years, they could never look beyond this is how we always have done it. Introducing them to a few metrics and showing slow but upward gains gradually made an impact. You have nailed it Mark!

  • What @lauraclick:disqus said!

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  • Thanks for sharing that experience Randy. Glad I could I help today!

  • Absolutely Mark!
    Progress is the key… Thanks for sharing your perspective!
    What a journey this is… My ’80s doctoral dissertation is on the concept of progress 😉

  • I would hope no social media consultants are disavowing activity. The issue isn’t whether or not activity has value, the issue is whether or not you are only measuring activity. Indeed, activity is a means to an end, with that end being actual business impact, as you point out here.

  • Keep on Keeping on! Never stop moving forward or you will get let behind. Thanks Mark for the read.

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  • Activity is rarely meaningless, the question is whether or not you’ve *applied* any meaning to that activity.

  • Bet that was an interesting project!

  • Well said. In fact, perfectly said! Thanks so much Jay!

  • Glad this was helpful Barry!

  • Distilling wisdom from numbers I’d the key to the marketing kingdom and a rare talent, I find! honored to have you comment Matt!

  • Ralf Skirr

    Interesting points. Creating acceptance and momentum in the organizatin first, before aiming at the actual marketing goals. Something that’s probably often overlooked.

  • Claudia Licher

    Nice one Mark!
    And you do need to be active if you want to be visible… Noticed… Credible. Who ever heard of invisible thought leaders?

  • Personally, I don’t think that I could win a marathon the first day that I decide to pick up running.. instead, I would start training.. every. single. day. and build up to winning the marathon. The first thing I ask a new client is “when all is said and done, what would you consider a success to look like?” and that’s what we build to.

  • I can’t over-emphasize the importance of momentum. Building quick wins into your plan is a great way to accomplish that and create excitement and pride.

  • Like that very much Claudia. Great thought!

  • We think alike in that way for sure!

  • Thought provoking post Mark. I appreciate the notion of working to instill a culture of social business, and seeing activity as an indicator of a culture shift. I too often have clients (nonprofits) who see activity as the end goal, resulting in a transaction-based culture that fails to develop lasting relationships that sustain the organization. That’s entirely different than a transformation-based culture where social activities blossom and grow into engaging relationships. Generally, the latter is what businesses and nonprofits are going for — actions that have real value in that they drive sales or fundraising and create growth and opportunity.

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  • Peter Lightbody

    I guess this falls into the category of problems of confusing the first step with the destination. I completely agree with you Mark – the first step needs to be an unfreezing of the culture through small steps. And then as the organisation learns what is working they can begin to set longer term goals and metrics. Maybe another way to look at the first steps of a social media effort is to define the MVP with a twist – Minimum Viable Project (rather than Product). An organisation could ask itself – What are the first, small steps we could take to get moving?

  • Megan Conley

    Agree on the progress, especially in the beginning when business are building their foundation. The big picture challenge is that many marketers/companies are facing is the phase after initial progress – remembering to leverage preliminary activity and collecting data to inform the next phase of progress. Sometimes that evolution doesn’t happen, and that’s where people get stuck. Would love to see a post about making that transition.

  • The social media consultants are rarely measuring the impact of multiple online and offline touches– things like calls and check-ins are great. But most touches are invisible.

  • Absolutely, and without any doubt Mark!
    This “…project” took 7 years to complete…

  • Really amazing comment Claire. This would make a great blog post in its own right!

  • Wonderful insight Peter. Love that. Thanks for commenting today!

  • The big opportunity is with your leadership. If they “get it” and they support it, you will not have to lead them to the next level, they will push you there. By far the most important aspect of this cultural evolution is the sponsorship of the leader. There is no such thing as grassroots cultural change!

  • brightmatrix

    Great essay, Mark. What I appreciate about your advice here is that these are sound and important metrics for EMERGING social media/marketing efforts. As the program and culture within the organization move from adoption to maturity, tracking and measuring likes, impressions, shares, etc. become part of a tapestry of analytical data that forms a larger picture.

    I dislike the use of “lazy success” metrics such as likes (which take very little involvement by the user) to form a total business case or measure of success in and of itself. However, for a group just starting out, this may be all you have for a while. It’s all about context.

  • Perfectly stated. Thanks for sharing your wisdom today!

  • Thanks Mark. I do try to post around this topic from time to time. It’s my whole business mantra – ‘philanthropy, not fundraising’ – with the former being transformative and the latter being transactional. I have a series of posts on the topic. Thinking about creating a book — if I ever get around to it! Appreciate your support.

  • Rezwan Razani

    Thanks for this great post! This is where we are with the fusion endeavor. Working towards cultural change and adoption of social media practices, as you can see: http://fusionenergyleague.org/

  • Rachel Strella

    Once again, Mark, you nailed it! This is something I stress to my small business clients who get dollar signs in their eyes at the first mention of social media! I’ve found that some businesses fail to realize their full social media potential because their goals are misguided; they focus only on growing sales.
    Make no mistake, growing sales or attracting new clients is fundamental to business success. Sales growth is also one of the many benefits of a successful social media plan. But in order to achieve that goal, I highly recommend taking a deeper dive to identify specific targets that will lead to this end result. Goals such as: increasing website traffic, establishing credibility/authority, building the audience/following, or increasing customer engagement.

    Then, it’s crucial for the business to provide the “finish” with things like providing excellent service or having a product or service that the marketplace needs. (This can be a challenge for some small businesses – and a topic for an entirely separate post).

    Whatever the case, I recommend identifying two or three short-term goals for about 90 days. I also strive to select goals that are measurable in some way – think Google analytics for website traffic.

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  • Well said, Mark. I’ve always been a proponent of so-called ‘vanity metrics’. Surely they’re at least a leading indicator of good stuff to follow — as long as they’re not gamed, like buying ‘likes’.

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