The Persistent Social Media Measurement Problem: A Mini-Manifesto

The Persistent Social Media Measurement Problem - Brass Tack Thinking

The problem with most social media measurement is very simple to state.


  1. We’re not measuring at all, or
  2. We’re trying to overcomplicate this stuff like crazy.

The goal of measurement is not the measurement process. It’s not the report or the spreadsheet or the infographic in your slick presentation.

The goal of measurement is to learn something that tells you whether or not what you’re headed in the right direction, and to help you make better business decisions moving forward. Should we keep doing this, stop doing this, or do something different altogether?

In that spirit, here are a few current truths about measuring this social media stuff, and more broadly, marketing and communication as a whole.

ROI is more effective to measure at a larger scale.

If ROI is really the metric you care about (how many dollars you manage to get back out of the dollars you spend), then you’re much better off looking at this through a wider lens.

Quit trying to measure the ROI of Pinterest.

Instead, focus on the ROI of your marketing efforts on the business as a whole. How much did you spend marketing the business, and how much revenue did it realize? That is a much easier thing to correlate against, and frankly tells you a more interesting story than a brain-bendingly granular calculation against a minor tactic whose specific attribution toward revenue is a pain in the butt, anyway…and which will stop mattering when the platform changes or goes away.

I’d much rather know that my marketing strategy overall is moving sales and demand generation up and to the right. If it isn’t, THEN I can worry about digging in and optimizing aspects of that strategy. (In which case the optimization is likely going to need different benchmarks and measures other than ROI).

Ultimately, our job is to tell the story that enables sales.

Our job is not to be clever, or momentarily famous on the internet, or “viral”. Those are tactics, but not destinations.

Marketing’s job is to enable sales, period. And don’t worry, that’s the job of everyone in the business, ultimately. Because no sales, no business.

You might want to tell me that sometimes the goal of marketing isn’t sales. It’s brand awareness, or reputation development, or fostering community and advocacy.

Guess what? The goal of all of those things is still to enable sales, too. Awareness, reputation, and community are of zero business value unless they are a stop on the path to ultimate purchase or donation or whatever else spells “financial success”. Loyalty begets increased referrals and sales. Good reputation drives sales. Brand awareness drives sales. An active, engaged community drives awareness and reputation and loyalty which together drive sales.

See where I’m going with this?

Those are all milestones and indicators within a sales relationship, but make no mistake about where the road ultimately leads. All business goals – marketing, customer service, innovation – are goals nested within a much bigger picture.

This requires us shaking loose the notion of seeking the sale as a bad, dirty thing. We have to learn to distinguish between trying to force every interaction into a transaction (bad) and looking at the overall goal of “make the business successful” (good).

Which means your first measurement stop should be getting the simple straight.

Social media is an enabler, not a strategy destination in itself. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Social media can enable marketing, PR, customer service, HR, innovation and product development…the list goes on. It’s a part of a larger business function. So before we do anything else with measurement, we need to look at the performance of those business functions based on their strategic goals.

In an external marketing capacity, we need to look at a few key things.

  1. Revenue generation
  2. Lead and demand generation
  3. Customer loyalty & advocacy

(No, I don’t look at “engagement” as a metric. Here’s why.)

Internally, I tend to look at:

1. Sales enablement (are they equipped with what they need to make a compelling case for a sale??)
2. Internal brand (is everyone telling the same basic story, well *and* enthusiastically?)

Until you know how to measure those things and you’re doing it consistently, stop worrying about whether you can measure the specific impact of your Google+ page. Because your measurement challenges are much more basic.

Yes, many things in addition to marketing contribute to each of those larger business goals. But if you aren’t doing a good job of tracking and communicating marketing’s performance against basic business objectives even at a basic level, there’s little value in trying to get ridiculously granular about social media metrics.

Same goes if you’re using social media to power HR or customer service. The business goals reign.

The second step should be more marketing-specific…but still simple.

If our business is sophisticated enough to be measuring all of the above well, then it’s time to look at marketing’s specific performance against those goals.

Which means that we need three things:

  1. Captured behavior metrics for marketing goals (leads generated, sales converted, referrals, repeat purchases, demonstrated awareness)
  2. The ability to measure and track our marketing activities (what did we do and why did we do it)
  3. Associating those marketing activities with the intended business goals

The third bit is where most people go off the rails.

For example. Instead of looking at all of the things within your marketing plan that are designed, in whole or in part, to increase lead generation and determining whether that business goal is in good shape, we try to dive straight to attributing leads to Twitter or whether we should have two or three posts per day on Instagram. Or we simply care about how many Facebook fans we have and miss that all-important association with business goals or behavior (i.e. what the heck are we doing with those fans once we have them?).

Tactical level tweaks are of little importance if, overall, we’re simply trying to determine if our marketing is working at all. It’s no wonder measurement seems like a giant mountain to climb when we’re trying to skip entire steps of basic performance evaluation!

Granular measurement is more about diagnosis and optimization of tactics than demonstrating strategic marketing success.

Here’s when you should worry about what time you post your Tweet for your ebook:

  1. When you know that your eBook is a valuable piece of content.
  2. When you can determine that eBook downloads are at least correlating with increased lead generation (presuming that’s your goal)
  3. When your overall lead generation performance through all marketing-driven efforts is strong but you want to optimize every last possible lead.

We all want to be able to worry about that last thing, but so few of us ever get past the first two.

And if your overall lead generation performance in this example is not where it needs to be, I can pretty much promise you it’s not because you’re posting your Tweets at the wrong time.

Something else is fundamentally missing, so you need to look at step 1 and 2 here, or go back up the chain and figure out whether the big picture marketing pieces are in place: compelling story and message, knowledge of your community and what they need, appropriate strategy to discover and deliver those two things.

In other words, don’t try to measure strategic success by splitting tactical hairs.

You don’t need measurement to be complicated.

You can make measurement ridiculously complicated. And sure, there are times and places for that in some businesses or when you’re really diving deep into efficacy of specific tactics (when and only when they’re well aligned with those pesky business goals we keep talking about).

But that’s not the problem I consistently see out there in the real world.

I see businesses that aren’t measuring much at all, let alone marketing performance. I see businesses that are trying to measure everything in fancy charts instead of measuring the three basic things for them that could give them a great deal of insight and direction on their next business decision. I see activity reporting (fans, followers, clicks) instead of impact reporting (revenue, cost reduction, customer retention).

I see marketing leadership scrambling to prove their department’s worth when the business as a whole has weak performance measurement (which makes it nearly impossible for marketing to ever demonstrate their impact on that bigger picture). I see businesses who try to measure marketing in a vacuum without any sort of alignment with other business metrics in sales or customer service to understand whether all those well-thought initiatives are integrated and helping each other.

I don’t see people who need more complicated measurement for their social media.

(If you really and truly do, I’d love to hear more about that in the comments).

Personally, I think the truth is that we use the difficulty of social media measurement as a bit of a distraction from the real business problems that we should be worrying about, or at least discussing. It’s easier to bury ourselves in a straw man problem – OMG THE ROI OF TWITTER – than to ask really hard questions about how we know our business is performing well. I also think we’re so obsessed with marketing getting the credit for momentum or a clever flash in the pan when we’d be much better served to worry about whether we’re going to have a healthy business three years from now.

My career in marketing has spanned nearly 20 years, most of them really and truly successful. Because overall, I could point to the fact that what I worked on, at least in some capacity, drove business results. We did marketing stuff, and the right BIG needles moved in the right direction. And I was always in touch with leaders throughout the business to figure out how we can help each other do more of the good stuff.

Is it super sophisticated and all big-data-y and crazy complex? Hell no. Nor did it ever have to be. It’s not just me, either. Ask a lot of successful marketing leaders to explain what and how they measure what they’re doing, and you’re going to get some pretty clear, simple answers.

I’m challenging us all to get back to strong measurement basics.

Some people are totally awesome at picking apart measurement data to find those crazy correlations. Some business problems require all sorts of in-depth analysis to understand.

Social media isn’t one of them. Not yet, anyway. Most of us really need to get better at basics. 

Creating a marketing strategy that’s aligned with business goals.

Executing consistently on a solid, integrated plan.

Keeping track of that execution, using some good deductive skills and some really sound basic metrics, and looping them back to those business goals. Rinsing, repeating.

If we can get that cycle right across the board, we’ll all have our businesses in much better shape, and everyone will wonder how the heck we did it. What better success can a marketer show?

None of this is to say that simple equates with easy. In fact, the most clear and simple performance measurement is probably the hardest to achieve. But it’s also the most important and effective.

The magic in measurement is not in the activity of measuring itself.  It’s in knowing whether our company is moving in the right direction, and how and why marketing helps or hinders at the most fundamental level.

The rest is gravy…and potentially a diversion from what really matters.

What do you say?

  • Tom Webster


    BTW, I think if more companies did this, they would curtail their social media efforts. And we can’t have them doing that!

    • Amber Naslund

      Curtail them for the purposes of driving revenue, sure. But gosh, they might just find that it’s useful for…gasp…other purposes, or as part of a larger strategy and not the strategy itself.

      I know, I know. Crazy talk, right?

  • Jason Keller

    Measurement is easy to polarize. Saying “we need measurement” is like saying “we need social media” in that there is probably something valid to the claim, but the thought is completely misguided.

    Yes, it can and should be about sales, but there are challenges with that (which is why you shouldn’t polarize!).

    One of the biggest challenges of connecting ROI with social data is that it looks really weak compared to the rest of the marketing mix. When thinking about social and how it relates to sales, there needs to be some caveats in its validation. Otherwise you end up with people seeing that email led to the most leads and social maybe only got one or two leads, thus thinking social isn’t worth the investment. Perhaps that is just an example of bad measurement, but it is a common one.

    I do think there is a ton of value in using measurement for optimization of tactics too. This is where you can truly build a competitive advantage; by not just going on instinct, but seeing where opportunities are and having that supported by data. Because of this, the vanity metrics do become important – they allow to see a larger story.

    You’re right though, it is easy to get burdened by all those data points, but that is why you need to either get good at data analysis, or hire someone who is. Because data is indeed complicated and requires some advanced skills. But leadership, and even day-to-day managers shouldn’t be seeing the complicated stuff, they should be seeing the story that complicated data is telling. If they’re not, then you’re probably doing it wrong.

    Ultimately there are many ways to utilize measurement – to either validate efforts or to optimize campaigns are probably the two most common. So regardless of how you are using it, hopefully it isn’t just considered one thing.

    • Amber Naslund

      Ok, a couple of things.

      ROI is not the same as lead generation. ROI is a monetary return figure, and just one metric among many. But let’s change the conversation and call it “success metrics” for the sake of argument.

      If your success metrics are appropriately tied to your well-structured goals, then you *should* reduce your investment in social *as a lead generation mechanism* if the numbers as a driver toward that goal aren’t bearing it out. It might be better suited to awareness and potential reach, or developing advocates (my personal opinion for where social has the most power, but I digress), or even somewhere else in the organization like business intelligence or customer service. There shouldn’t be anything polarizing about that.

      And I want to be really clear here: I am NOT saying, nor have I ever said, that there isn’t value in using measurement for optimization. The problem is that too many people try and START there without the rest of the house in order, then shout and holler about social being impossible to measure or the return not being there. It’s like saying your house isn’t staying up and isn’t worth building when you haven’t poured a proper foundation.

      Data is *not* inherently complicated. It can be but it doesn’t have to be. At all. The “it requires advanced skills” argument is precisely what stops so many marketers from doing the most basic of measurement, or business leaders for that matter, and why we find ourselves in this measurement quagmire. Fundamentally good measurement takes some basic data points, and the ability to draw fundamentally sound conclusions based on logic.

      Yes there are many ways to use measurement, from social media to finding cures for cancer and everything in between. But the point here is that “social media measurement” is totally useless if you have big missing pieces in a system of benchmarking and tracking business results.

      • Jason Keller

        Eeks your response has me thinking you believe I disagree with your post. I really don’t at all!

        I should have simplified what I said to make three points (all of which you say better than me in your response):

        - Social as a sales enabler struggles in comparison to other tactics, yet it has value in awareness, reach, etc. higher up the funnel so I hope it isn’t disregarded solely because it doesn’t drive leads

        - Measurement offers a competitive advantage on tactics (which was something I said in response to the sentence “I see activity reporting (fans, followers, clicks) instead of impact reporting (revenue, cost reduction, customer retention).” (You clarified you weren’t against this already).

        - And while data is not complicated, there should be a larger investment in specialization here. You’re absolutely right about the basics and that there needs to be more buy-in at the fundamental levels, but I don’t understand why it should stop there; it seems like more business insights are left on the table.

        Either way, I like your post (and maybe like arguing too much) and definitely didn’t mean to put you on the defensive!

        • Amber Naslund

          Oh gosh, no defensiveness intended. I think I misunderstood some of your points re: sales though. Sorry!
          Yes, I’m all for specialization. Eventually. I think the reason I’m so adamant about not focusing there is simply because it’s not particularly useful to tell someone they should be thinking about running when they can’t walk. Though there are businesses that need the investment, to be sure, I don’t come across them often. I wish I did!

  • Gary Hyman

    Amber, I believe you’ve said this with absolute elegance. Totally agree with you, & feel many are just missing the basics, and are getting caught up in the tactical stuff instead of making sure they have a sound vision, a reachable destination, and a solid strategy. Very awesome article. Best I’ve read in a long time. Thanks.

  • Tara Coomans

    Amber-you’ve articulated my experience with SM measurement very eloquently. I have this really amazing model which I developed and refined, only to realize that once I got my head out of the spreadsheet, the ROI was a mixed-marketing top level number. I do evaluate tactics within subcategories, branding, advertising and promotion, but there is usually a mix of tactics (not just social) in each, so again, to your point, big picture. I love digging deep, and it’s worthy, sometimes. :) Thanks for the great post!

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  • David Murray

    I’ve been playing with something called Estimated Value of Online Community. This simply states that anyone who participates with your online community (regardless of channel) is either 1) a potential customer and/or 2) a current customer. If a company or organization can define a monetary value to either of these, then they can define a value associated to anyone connected to their social channels. The problem, and you defined this perfectly in your post, is that despite all the marketing and strategies few business have identified these values.

    Based on your experience, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts around why this is and how it affects social measurement.

    Thank you!