The new rules of evaluation

As social media's role in the PR mix becomes greater, it becomes more imperative to figure out the best way to measure it

Last fall, Select Comfort, makers of the Sleep Number Bed that adjusts to the owner's specifications, launched as an aggregator for all matters related to its products and how to get a good night's sleep. The site also has a blog, The Slumber Party, which is meant to spark a two-way conversation with consumers.

"This is just another place to get information about how customers feel and experience our product," says Gabby Nelson, director of PR and employee communications for Select Comfort.

The company has been working with its AOR, Ogilvy PR, on the effort, which it says has been successful thus far, an assertion based on four metrics: reach; engagement, such as time spent with the site; word-of-mouth impact; and search visibility. Since the launch, positive and neutral mentions of the company in consumer-generated media have increased, in part due to its new ability to more quickly respond to customer complaints.

"We know through research that recommendations from peers matter much more than traditional marketing materials and even media mentions," says John Bell, MD of Ogilvy's 360o Digital Influence group. "We're trying to understand the volume of the conversation and the tone, which gives us the ability to do a deep dive into those topics that are most prevalent among owners. At the end of the day, what you get from those measurements is an increased knowledge of your customer, which is so valuable."

PR pros are working hard to figure out how to measure the effectiveness of their new- and social-media efforts. In many ways, a word-of-mouth analogy is being made so that, especially in the case of blogs, tone is a significant metric. However, even with blogs, there is the question of what makes an impact. While there are a few different approaches, just about everyone agrees that the industry is still on the ground floor when it comes to best practices.

"It's so much easier to know what we don't want to do than what we do want to do," says Bell.

The companies know they want to generate more peer-to-peer mentions, place consumer reviews in a place that's easy for potential buyers to find, and generate positive word-of-mouth discussion.

To measure progress, Ogilvy considers reach the least important metric of the four it has pinpointed, preferring quality over quantity in its social-media efforts.

"We want more people involved, but that's secondary," says Bell. "We want to activate people to get them deeply engaged."

That attitude has become the industry standard. Simply measuring how many people look at what your company is doing online has become virtually meaningless. More important is targeting influencers and getting them to act.

"What people are getting confused about is monitoring and measuring," says Katie Paine, CEO of KDPaine & Partners. "In terms of actually measuring the impact of a social-media program, they're still doing it in terms of hits. If your goal is engagement, then your measure of success needs to be the number of people going to your site and downloading white papers, donating money, [etc.]."

Using metrics that actually quantify the audience's actions is critical given that a visitor could be just about anyone, she adds. The goal should be to gather repeat visitors who are going to position the brand in a favorable way.

"What you care about are the people who are engaged enough to come back frequently, and put out interesting stuff to tell people about your brand," says Paine. "It's about getting influencers to say what you want them to. A lot of effort is being spent in attempting to define the influencers."

To that end, Ketchum has formed a partnership with Rob Cross, University of Virginia professor, author, and head of the school's social networking consortium, The Network Roundtable, to help clients map social-media influencers.

"The application of this kind of approach methodologically will help both harness the social media world and make sure we're not having a knee-jerk reaction to everything," says David Rockland, partner and MD of Ketchum's Global Research and Interactive Communications division. "We are forced to somewhat redefine measurement right now in the context of social media."

With the vast amount of blogs and social groups spread across the Internet, being able to narrow the target is one goal that many PR pros have set for themselves.

Social networks allow marketers to reach the smallest niche possible, but choosing a group on Facebook or MySpace isn't enough.

"Different folks use different networks for different purposes," says James Morera, director and social media strategist at Burson-Marsteller. "Being specific, as far as which networks you physically target in terms of getting to the nitty-gritty, [brings] a higher rate of return. As a success metric, the penetration is higher, which I think is important to companies today."

The industry is at a trial-and-error stage, so every measurement success is a step towards greater knowledge and best practices.

"We're still feeling out the best way to measure networks," says Morera. "It's been difficult as social media is like the Wild West."

Challenges to measuring social media

The human factor
Metrics such as tone require a human touch, which is slower than computers and sometimes prone to error

The language barrier

The Internet is international and engagement happens cross-border, creating a need for multilingual analysts

The need for a new model

Many try to measure social media using traditional media metrics, which can provide
little value

The blogger effect
It can be tough to devise ways to decipher the strong feelings and sarcasm usually projected by this group

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