How do you measure social media?


TwentyFeet aggregates metrics supplied by multiple online services. Image via

After the last blog post about the use of social media by West Michigan organizations, a reader asked a question about how to measure the use and results of social media by organizations.

That’s a good question, and it hits on a subject often debated by PR professionals.

There’s much to say, and I’ll try to avoid getting too bogged down in specifics and give the broad overview of social media measurement and evaluation.

Let me start by backing up.

When we talk about measuring social media, it’s best to be informed about PR evaluation generally. In other words, professionals want to avoid the trap of measuring only how well they're doing on social media — as opposed to what social media is doing to meet organizational goals.

General PR practice, whether in a specific campaign or ongoing organizational communication, follows a process commonly known by the acronym RACE: research, action plan, communication, evaluation.

So measuring social media should fit into the RACE framework. It's part of the overall evaluation of an organization’s communication.

PR measurement

Traditional PR evaluation has had a range of methods, ranging from weak to more sophisticated.

The weakest is to merely measure “production” or to show a client or boss the communication “product” generated, such as copies of news releases, brochures, ad tear sheets and so forth.

The equivalent in social media would be to show the number of tweets and status updates written over a period of time. But that only shows that a PR professional has done their job, not the results.

A slightly more meaningful measure is known as “exposure,” also referred to as “eyeballs reached.”

In media relations, this has traditionally involved generating clip reports or a collection of news clippings to show that news releases resulted in actual articles. It is assumed that the news was seen or read by lots of people.

In advertising, gross ratings points, a measure of the number of times an ad ran times the reported audience for a given media outlet, are reported to indicate exposure to a message.

The equivalent of this in social media is to count “friends” and “followers.”

But, as many people realize, just because a company page or account has lots of followers, there is no guarantee that every one of them saw a given post.

Facebook has tried to help with this by showing how many are online at the time of a page update to indicate how many see a given post for a more accurate attempt to measure exposure.

Facebook’s built-in “Insights” can give more aggregated data of exposure or reach, including those who see a page update that has been shared with followers’ own networks.

Measuring response

But the gold standard in PR measurement is response.

When writing the action plan part of the RACE process mentioned above, practitioners should write clearly measureable objectives in terms of a specified audience increase in awareness, attitude or action (what I tell my students are the “3 As”).

For awareness and attitude change, this often involves surveys and other more-involved measures.

Action objectives can be measured often by observation, such as donations received or sales figures that increase in correlation to communication efforts.

Measuring outcomes in social media can be done using a variety of techniques built in to social media campaigns.

For example, posting links back to specific pages on an organization’s website and measuring traffic inbound from Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms using a website’s built-in stats or a service like Google Analytics.

Sentiment analysis, or comparing positive and negative comments on social media channels, can be done manually doing searches on Twitter hashtags or searching for an organization’s name within social media platforms — or a standard Google search — and assess the tone and attitude of what people are saying.

There are a host of free and paid services to help busy professionals do more analysis of their social media efforts.

These include, but are in no way limited to: Com Score, Trackur, Social Mention, Tweet Reach, Kurrently and Twenty Feet.

Return on investment

I need to make a quick comment about return on investment or ROI measures.

As in all forms of PR measurement, the results are not always immediate, direct or monetary. Nor should they be, necessarily.

What public relations does generally, and social media even more specifically, is help organizations build relationships and an environment in which a direct sales pitch or other specific goals push will be more successful.

People don’t buy cars, or even meals at a specific restaurant, after every social media update. The idea is to build relationship and reputation, and the specific outcomes will follow when an individual is ready to act and an organization active in social media is top of mind and positively regarded.

Return on engagement

That leads to final measure of public relations that has become more stressed in the era of social media: the measure of relationships and engagement.

Engagement can be measured in social media by looking at the comments, replies, mentions and shares of the information, photos, videos and links an organization posts on social media.

Social media is supposed to be about dialogue, not just marketing pitches. So measuring the dialogue is what matters.

Academics have ways to measure relationships specifically.

Scales have been developed for determining not just if there are relationships, but the quality of them.

These include the degree to which specific publics say they trust an organization, are satisfied with the relationship, feel there is mutual control of conversations and other factors.

For more on this, there is an excellent free paper “Guidelines for Measuring Relationships in Public Relations” at the Institute for Public Relations.

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