The internet is, among many other things, a giant talking shop. Pretty much every second, a consumer will be offering unsolicited thoughts online on products, services and corporations. Half the world’s population now has a mobile phone and is happy to use it to share opinions.
Keen to tap into this audience of potential buyers and tastemakers, brands from insurance companies to interior designers have taken to social media to sell wares or enhance reputations. And there is no shortage of choice: channels such as Vine, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Google+ are common currency – and that’s before you get to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
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Social media evangelists will tell you that – unlike with many other forms of advertising – you can track and measure exactly who is looking at your messages and what effect they are having on your bottom line. Any measurement should include several main metrics, says analytics firm Talkwalker’s CEO Robert Glaesener.
These are: exposure and potential reach (that is, the number touched by the campaign); engagement (how many interactions were there and how many people are engaged for the long term); impact (did the campaign change consumer behaviour or did it affect the sentiment of a brand?) and advocacy (to establish whether or not key influencers grab the subject and discuss or distribute it).
"Broadly, we can distinguish two types of social media," Glaesener continues. "The ones more prone to emotions – Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube – where engagement, tone, sentiment and repeat viewership will be key. The other type is more factual, real-time and informational: Twitter, online media comments, message boards. Exposure, impact and advocacy will be key."
Social media campaigns need to be tracked along three dimensions, he adds. The first is owned content – that is, all of your own channels, such as Facebook and Twitter pages and YouTube presence. The second is mentions across every social channel. And the third is your performance-based spending on paid channels.
Fellow analytics specialist Socialbakers recommends measuring interactions – the absolute number of likes, comments and shares – over engagement rate, even though these metrics might heavily correlate. The firm’s logic is that the rise of news feed-based advertising means the playing field is not level, giving pages with higher ad budgets the ability to boost engagement regularly as these posts reach more non-fans. Socialbakers chief marketing officer Neil Morgan also emphasises the importance of benchmarking: "By understanding how your interaction levels compare to your industry or within your region you can benchmark your performance, and by understanding the structure of your interactions you can judge value, as naturally a share holds more weight than a simple like."
Neil Kleiner, head of social media at Golin, takes up this point. "To owned, earned and paid content, I would add shared content," he says. "Liking my post is good – but sharing it is particularly good. Exposure, engagement, impact, advocacy are important, and there are demographic elements to it as well: it’s about reaching 10,000 of the right people, not ten million."
Therein lies the rub: having a limitless amount of information about customers is intoxicating. "My pet peeve is when people set up a Facebook page or Twitter channel without having a defined business objective," explains Kleiner. "So define what you want the channel to do – this sounds fundamental but it’s still an issue."
A lot of brands still have not got a strategic view of what is important on social media. "They say: ‘I want to be on Snapchat and YouTube’ without ever thinking of what they will do when they get there," suggests Eamonn Carey, head of digital at MHP. "Most people are lost in data. There is a plethora of tools. You can almost get data overload: the challenge is picking out the metrics that matter. Click-throughs and purchases are one thing but it is difficult to gauge softer metrics. A lot of what you do isn’t necessarily about selling a product – you need to know the types of referrals they are getting and so on. The smarter brands are taking a step back from the tsunami of data."
There are also resource issues as each channel demands your attention and your response. "Being on ten social media platforms is not practical if you have a one-person comms team," points out Carey.
With opportunities come other problems. "Your objectives can change, so review them quarterly, allowing you to adapt as platforms change," insists Kleiner. "We have to be reactive and agile." Indeed, one of the things that makes social media so exciting – the promise of novelty – is a potential pitfall in that newer channels are unlikely to have the data to support you in making clear decisions about how useful they are, and about how much budget you should devote.
"There are a large number of platforms emerging but Facebook is one of two or three channels that is always going to be on the recommendation list," Kleiner says. "You have the right level of analytics, audience and media: we are constantly looking for the ‘new and shiny’ but have to marry that with the level of the audience."
This does not mean more niche audiences are not worth looking at – but you may have more trouble in proving robust ROI. Having said that it is worth remembering that it was only relatively recently that Facebook and Twitter produced the analytics platforms to show clients how useful they were.
Snapchat and WhatsApp – being used by 39 per cent of the mobile internet audience – are more private channels than many of their social media predecessors, which throws up another challenge. "Billions of conversations are not being tracked and monitored," says Carey. "We can’t hear a lot of what’s being said about us."
So the game shifts constantly and brands have to move fast: just make sure you know in what direction you are going.
Off-the-shelf tools: pros and cons
There are myriad options available to those wanting to track brands across social media – and the resulting information can be sliced and diced in almost any way you like. Different tools have different strengths, and so – as with your campaigns themselves – it is worth considering exactly what you want out of them…
A highly popular free tool with the bulk you would expect from its manufacturer. It can do a great deal – leading some users to suggest that the sheer range of choice may be overwhelming for beginners. But to many, this is the gold standard in no-cost platforms.
Its dashboard is well liked and its plan is widely seen as good value. What it lacks in features compared to some rivals it more than makes up for in allowing multiple users to pore over datastreams.
Much praised for its user-friendliness, making it gentle on those new to the game. There are limits on what you can access in terms of searches, so budgeting is something of which users must be keenly aware.
Crimson Hexagon ForSight
Training the tool to recognise sentiment is a major plus for users, and its spam filter is also attractive as it reduces the chances of potentially misleading results. It may take more time than with other products to set up monitors but the effort is worthwhile.
Some minor gripes about customisation of reports, but the unlimited access it offers to data, plus the ease of set-up and comprehensive features, are set against any shortcomings to make a strong overall package.
Flexible and straightforward to use, this is a strong all-rounder with a broad reach including the ability to monitor and translate numerous languages. Seen by some as lacking in its coverage of newer areas of social media, it is a popular tool nonetheless.
It does not allow you to respond to, or schedule, your own posts but it will measure key metrics and has a series of plans to appeal to smaller companies looking for monitoring and analysis.
Perhaps more of a research tool than the others, but still highly useful, covering more than one billion social media movements each day.