Social Media Vanity Metrics: The Trap For Consumer Marketing

Are you plan­ning and mea­sur­ing suc­cess in social media around broad met­rics, such as poten­tial impres­sions? Then you need to exam­ine what those num­bers are real­ly telling you.

Andrew Smith By Andrew Smith from Escherman. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Whether you choose to view the consumer’s pur­chase jour­ney as a sales fun­nel or a flight path (Google’s Zero Moment Of Truth), one thing is clear. Con­sumer behav­ior is more com­plex and involves more infor­ma­tion­al touch points than ever before.

What Role Does Social Media Really Play In This World?

Accord­ing to author Dave Evans in his book Social Media Mar­ket­ing, social media links con­sumer expe­ri­ences of a brand, not a brand’s promise to the con­sumer. In terms of mod­els, such as the sales fun­nel or even Google’s ZMOT, this trans­lates into the fact that social media is large­ly being used to by con­sumers to val­i­date a brand’s claims made in oth­er chan­nels. Let’s take an exam­ple. I’m sit­ting at home in the evening. I’m watch­ing TV. I also hap­pen to be “dual screen­ing” with my tablet device. I see a TV ad for a brand. Strip aside all the cre­ative imagery, music and words, and you are typ­i­cal­ly left with a basic, under­ly­ing mes­sage: “We think our prod­uct is great. You should buy it.” On one lev­el, the mar­keter’s job is part­ly achieved (i.e., brand vis­i­bil­i­ty). But will I imme­di­ate­ly grab my iPad and buy the prod­uct online or make a men­tal note to seek out that brand next time I’m in the super­mar­ket? Almost cer­tain­ly not. The like­li­hood that any­one will imme­di­ate­ly accept a brand’s propo­si­tion is extreme­ly remote. We are much more like­ly to want to val­i­date a brand’s claims through oth­er sources. And one of our first points of call will be Google. Glob­al PR firm Edel­man has for many years been con­duct­ing research into con­sumer trust.

In recent times, the head­line find­ings have cen­tered around our con­tin­u­ing lev­els of dis­trust in busi­ness, gov­ern­ment, and the media. Our most trust­ed sources remain oth­er peo­ple who we think are “like us.” How­ev­er, in Edel­man’s 2014 sur­vey, a rather star­tling fact emerged. Con­sumers trust Google’s search results more than any oth­er source except for our peers, friends, and fam­i­ly. Google is turn­ing into a brand val­i­da­tion engine. Sim­i­lar­ly, social media is being used as a mech­a­nism for val­i­dat­ing mar­ket­ing claims. Ear­li­er this year at Brand Republic’s Social Sum­mit con­fer­ence in Lon­don, Twit­ter UK Man­ag­ing Direc­tor Bruce Dais­ley point­ed out that UK Twit­ter users will per­form on aver­age one search per day via the plat­form. In oth­er words, Twit­ter is a social search engine. Con­sumers are proac­tive­ly seek­ing out what con­ver­sa­tions can be dis­cov­ered about brands and their promis­es. The result­ing con­ver­sa­tions have a big influ­ence on whether these con­sumers will pro­ceed from con­sid­er­a­tion to pur­chase – or will con­tin­ue on their deci­sion-mak­ing path, depend­ing on your sales behav­ior mod­el of choice.

What Can Marketers Deduce From This Consumer Behavior?

First, the evi­dence is mount­ing that social media is large­ly a con­sump­tion medi­um rather than an engage­ment medi­um. Take Twit­ter again as an exam­ple. Even if brand accounts have large num­bers of fol­low­ers, there are all man­ner of rea­sons why that sim­ple fol­low­er count should not be used as a proxy for gen­uine reach:

  • Many of those fol­low­ers may be fakes.
  • Even if there are real peo­ple attached to those accounts, how many of them will even see the con­tent you post?
  • Even if peo­ple do see what you post, how have they dis­cov­ered that con­tent? Did they stum­ble across it in their feed or were they active­ly seek­ing to val­i­date your claim from else­where (such as a TV ad)?

In the absence of hard data direct from the social plat­forms them­selves, mar­keters have been forced to rely upon proxy social data. Total­ing up the fol­low­er num­bers of Twit­ter accounts who share your con­tent pro­vides a “poten­tial impres­sion” num­ber. If you’ve based your sales and mar­ket­ing cal­cu­la­tions on impres­sions and fre­quen­cy num­bers, would 10 mil­lion poten­tial Twit­ter expo­sures real­ly gen­er­ate the kind of gen­uine brand vis­i­bil­i­ty need­ed to trans­late into mean­ing­ful sales and prof­it fig­ures? What if you real­ly could see how many peo­ple real­ly did have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be exposed to your con­tent via social, and what if you could use this data in com­bi­na­tion with insight into what roles social media real­ly does play in a con­sumer pur­chase jour­ney? As it hap­pens, devel­op­ments among some of the big social media plat­forms to deliv­er bet­ter data and insight to adver­tis­ers has had the knock on effect of more robust impres­sion data being made avail­able. For exam­ple, Twit­ter rolled out its ana­lyt­ics plat­form to all users in July.

One of the key pieces of data revealed via the dash­board is a real “impres­sions” fig­ure – the num­ber of peo­ple who real­ly had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to see and engage with your con­tent. Twit­ter is look­ing at which tweets real­ly did appear on a screen or mobile device that a real human being actu­al­ly had a chance of see­ing in the first place. The real­i­ty is quite sober­ing. On aver­age, each tweet will be seen by rough­ly 3 to 5 per­cent of your fol­low­er base. That’s a sig­nif­i­cant­ly small­er num­ber than “poten­tial impres­sions” gained by sim­ply tak­ing fol­low­er counts as a proxy for reach.

Implications For Consumer Marketers

If you’ve been plan­ning and mea­sur­ing suc­cess in social media around broad met­rics, such as poten­tial impres­sions, then you need to prop­er­ly eval­u­ate what those num­bers are real­ly telling you. You also need to recon­sid­er what data you should be using to deter­mine the make up of your mar­ket­ing mix in rela­tion to the con­sumer pur­chase jour­ney. In short, con­sumer mar­keters have to acknowl­edge the com­plex­i­ty of the con­sumer deci­sion jour­ney. More research and effort up front to deter­mine what those deci­sion paths actu­al­ly are should help to deter­mine what role indi­vid­ual mar­ket­ing chan­nels can and should play. In the con­text of social media specif­i­cal­ly, it may well mean recon­sid­er­ing the role it is play­ing in terms of how con­sumers use it.

From a met­rics and data stand­point, using the real data from the plat­forms them­selves may not imme­di­ate­ly appear to be deliv­er­ing good news in terms of large reach and engage­ment num­bers. But those who base their pro­grams and approach­es on how the world real­ly is must sure­ly stand to gain longer term over those that cling to van­i­ty met­rics that make you feel good but won’t pay the bills in the long run.

Andrew Smith

Written by Andrew Smith

Director, Escherman

Andrew Bruce Smith is the founder and Managing Director of digital communications consultancy Escherman. With a career spanning 29 years, Andrew has implemented many successful marketing communications programmes for brands such as IBM, MySQL, and Apple. He is co-author of two best-selling social media books - Share This: a practical handbook to the biggest changes taking place in the media and its professions (Wiley 2012). And Share This Too: More Social Media Solutions for PR Professionals (Wiley 2013). Andrew is also a trainer in measurement, evaluation, social media, analytics and SEO for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), a member of the CIPR Social Media panel and a guest lecturer at the University of Leeds Business School.

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