Social Media Metrics: What Do They Actually Mean?

do metrics matter
Image via FindYourSearch on Flickr

Social media managers are pretty into numbers. Followers, likes, retweets — it’s all about the catch-all term of “engagement,” largely because that number is what both bosses and clients alike tend to zero in on. But how much do metrics, especially on social media, really matter? Are they good indicators of the strength of your brand — and, moreover, do they actually convert to a positive change to your bottom line? When developing your social media plan, it’s important to ask yourself: What does it really mean to succeed?

First, let’s break down what we mean when we talk about engagement. Social media engagement, like how many likes a Facebook post gets, or how many times a tweet is retweeted, is usually counted quantitatively, rather than qualitatively. It is strictly numeric — and it’s the easiest to see and count. These figures are the ones that, if you’re a social media professional, you will likely find your client fixated on: More followers! More likes! If you run a small business, you, too, might end up carefully watching them, refreshing frequently to see if anyone new has faved your tweet.

These numbers, often called “vanity metrics,” deliver a shot of instant gratification, which makes them extremely seductive. However, these very-apparent engagement measurements are also the least meaningful, because they offer a scattershot look, and, often, don’t really count whether or not a client or fan is even happy.

Marketing strategist Freddy J. Nager explains the issue of engagement as such:

“Imagine a friend tells you that he went on vacation to Rio de Janeiro and claims that he had a lot of ‘engagement with the locals.’ Would you know what he was talking about? Yet that’s how some social media marketers talk: ‘We need to increase our engagement on Twitter.’ When a client tells me that, it means we have a very long meeting ahead,” he says.

“Anyone who doesn’t critically evaluate their ‘engagement’ — whether it’s trivial or major, positive or negative — is just another friend boasting about his vacation, while not mentioning that he spent most of his time alone. He can show you the numbers, but odds are they just don’t add up.”

Additionally, the numbers you can see often don’t tell the whole, truthful story.

Take Facebook: Everyone knows that Facebook, as a platform, throttles the ability for both brands and individuals to reach their entire audience. Your brand may have 10,000 fans, but you’ll notice your posts reaching just a fraction of them. If you want to reach more, Facebook asks that you pony up and pay to “sponsor” a post.

This can be a smart way to reach new fans, and to remind your fans that you’re still making good content. It can also boost other posts, because, thanks to Facebook’s clever algorithm, the more your fans like and engage with your posts, the more of your posts they’re likely to see in the future.

However, likes don’t actually amount to anything — especially the kinds of likes that can be purchased through shady, third-party websites, which often make social media managers feel better, but don’t actually do anything. Aside from the money you’re paying Facebook, they have no dollar amount. And often, they’re fraudulent, users from developing nations, bots, or otherwise untrustworthy accounts. They aren’t real fans — they’re numbers.

Which doesn’t mean that Facebook isn’t a good investment in time and marketing effort — it is, especially if it’s where your clients, prospective clients, and friends spend their time — but think of your Facebook posts as more of a goodwill endeavor. You’re showing your audience the kinds of things you have to offer, while also making yourself a trustworthy, reliable source for information.

Basically, Facebook is for making friends, not making money.

The same is true for Twitter, where big brands sometimes purchase followers to make them look like they have a higher reach — though those followers don’t actually engage with the company, and they really don’t do what you want them to do: Purchase whatever it is you’re selling. Which is the real hitch with becoming fixated on likes and favorites and followers: Often, they just don’t correlate with other, more important numbers, like actual revenue-driving pageviews or sales.

So what to do?

The key is to find the metrics that actually matter — which, most often, takes more work and more research than just counting retweets.

Which Facebook posts get the most clicks? And, once someone has clicked on one of your links, where else do they go on your website? Are you capturing new clients with the content, or are they skipping right back off of your site? Are people natively sharing your content, or speaking about your business favorably without prompting?

Another way to see if your social media marketing is working is to ask your clients. When someone has purchased your product, are you asking them how they found it?

“Finding out how they’re finding you is huge,” says photographer Matthew Kemmetmueller. “So you need to make sure you’re asking this question — how did you find out about us?”

You can do this in a variety of ways, whether it be online surveys, or directly asking. But make sure you do that — actually finding out, from your clients, what prompted them to seek out your services is harder than counting likes, but it’s much more salient.

Social media engagement also does have the power to drive SEO, which means you or your brand can turn up in search results more readily.

“These social media sites have a lot of traffic,” explains photographer and SEO consultant Lawrence Chan, which means that having a presence does help drive traffic back to your site. However, if your social media sites don’t link back to something with substantial content — a curated blog, a well-designed website — all of the engagement in the world won’t help you a new audience.

“In the end, you have to create content not only worth reading, but also sharing,” he advises. Which means paying attention to the content that gets shared the most, and watching how your content is received by your audience. That metric can help you focus your marketing efforts in a smart, strategic way, rather than just chasing likes.


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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.