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Meaningful social measurement: a lesson from the underpants gnomes

There’s an episode of South Park where the boys go looking for the underpants gnomes, magical little creatures who sneak into your drawers at night and steal your underwear (I myself suffer from a sock gnome infestation). When the boys come across the gnomes in their underwear-stacked subterranean hideout, they ask them for an explanation. The gnomes proudly show them their business plan:

Underpants Gnome business plan

  • Phase 1: Collect underpants
  • Phase 2: ?
  • Phase 3: Profit!

I often can’t help thinking about the underpants gnomes when I’m talking to marketing managers about why they’re investing in social media. The idea seems to be:

  • Phase 1: Get lots of Twitter followers
  • Phase 2: ?
  • Phase 3: Profit!

It’s like the old days of web analytics where tracking “hits” was seen as somehow meaningful to a business. Eish.

Thankfully, the tide finally seems to be turning. The social media hype is fading, and more and more marketers are asking hard questions about the value of their investment. This is resulting – finally – in the most meaningless of metrics falling out of favour: the follower count. Newer services like Tumblr and Instagram purposely deprioritise these numbers, and even Twitter’s co-founder Ev Williams has spoken publicly about its attempts to replace the follower number some kind of engagement metric.

The big question is, if we don’t just measure followers, what do we measure instead?

Why the follower count is falling out of favour

There are many reasons that simple metrics like follower count (Twitter) and number of subscribers/page likes (Facebook) are being viewed with more criticism than they used to be:

  1. Focusing on the follower count incentivises the wrong behaviour

    Getting new followers is easy: post some LOLcats, ask people inane questions about their weekends, spend loads of money on social media advertising. Heck, if you really don’t care about the quality of the follower, post the most controversial statements you can think up. The things you would do to gain followers are often not the same things you would do to build a meaningful connection with them.

  2. Followers are not all created equal

    Follower counts don’t tell you whether 90% of your followers are bots, or fake accounts. They don’t tell you if your followers are themselves influential, or whether your followers are relevant to your business (if you’re an underpants store in Benoni, would it help you to have 500 followers in Lagos?). To get a true sense of the value of your community, you need to know who they are, and what the second- and third-level network (counting the people who follow your followers) look like.

  3. People might not care about what you’re saying, or even see it

    Follower numbers give no indication of how engaged people are with your content. If you have a small community, but they’re having lively conversations with you and with each other, if they’re retweeting you, if the sentiment of the conversation is positive, that means much more to a brand than thousands of passive followers who clearly don’t care about anything you’re saying. You don’t even know if your followers are seeing your content: they might log in infrequently or follow so many accounts that yours is just part of a stream of noise.

In short, follower numbers in isolation tell you nothing about whether you’re doing anything positive for the brand or the business. Counting followers is a vanity game, a sophisticated version of comparing, er, underpants sizes, not a way to get real insight into what you’re doing.

What you should be measuring instead

The trick to getting social media right is understanding what Phase 2 in your underpants gnome business plan is. What are you trying to achieve with your social media investment? There are many possibilities. You could be trying to lower the volume of support calls to your contact centre. You could be trying to start conversations with journalists. You could be trying to position your brand as hip and cool amongst a particular subculture. You could be soliciting real-time feedback or organising community events. You could be trying to improve product retention.

No two social media strategies are created the same. Each strategy should be measured, and ideally tied back to some business outcome, in its own way.

There are so many things you could be measuring, rather than simple follower counts. Analytics High-Priest Avinash Kaushik suggests four key metrics:

  • Conversation — are you engaging with your followers, and are they engaging with you?
  • Amplification — are your followers resharing your posts with their networks, and what is the size of this second-level network?
  • Applause — are your followers expressing their appreciation for your content with +1s, likes or stars?
  • Economic value — can you tie social media activity back to actual online sales, by looking at social media referral in your web analytics tool (like Google Analytics or Omniture), and using different multichannel attribution models to analyse this?

Some paid-for social media listening tools such as BrandsEye and Radian6 will give you even greater depth of insight by showing you sentiment and reputation scores, but there is enough free data available for most people who are starting their social media measurement journey.

The best insights come when you stop looking at social media metrics in isolation, and begin to overlay all of your marketing and sales data. Finding correlations between social media activity and brand equity, sales or product churn rates is where you can begin to really prove the ROI on social media investment. Doing this is not as hard as you think, but you can’t start unless you are clear on the role of social media within your overall marketing strategy.

Don’t be an underpants gnome. Understand what you’re trying to achieve, and measure that. Let’s stop chasing followers and start working out how to sell those underpants on BidorBuy.

Author | Sam Beckbessinger

Sam Beckbessinger
Sam likes anything she can take apart and put back together again. This makes her a big fan of Linux and rusty old cars. She is a Digital Planner at Quirk, which is her dream job because it allows her to obsess about the internet, work with some fabulous... More