Last week, I vented about TV news outlets touting metrics such as “tweets per minute” as if they should mean something objectively. That column was also a thinly veiled critique on many businesses’ and organizations’ approaches to social media measurement.

Toward the end of the column, I offered up inductees for a Hall of Fame of bad metrics, including hits, impressions and app downloads. Perhaps it’s worthwhile to offer up a framework for success metrics, which may have much greater meaning to your business or organization. Admittedly, this is a challenging proposition, given the range of reasons for doing marketing in the first place and the particular role that social media may play in a greater marketing strategy. But a good framework transcends business objectives, customer types, size of your organization and other factors.

Consider social activation metrics. The leaders at most social media giants readily admit that their platforms are much better suited for generating interest and engagement than for driving immediate purchase. But most of these channels don’t have measurement tools that neatly align with purchase-funnel success metrics — aided/unaided awareness, favorability and consideration. Primary metrics endemic to social media platforms leave much room for misinterpretation, particularly because these are purely quantitative without an accepted qualitative value (unlike most direct-response marketers’ KPIs). That said, there’s plenty of compelling evidence that peer-to-peer endorsement can have great value to your organization, so it makes sense to encourage, measure and optimize digital word-of-mouth.

Useful metrics include socially activated shares. Some might call this earned media, but that term has many definitions. Active reposting via social media is a strong indicator of endorsement, so when developing engagement scores, assign greater value to these user actions than mere mentions, likes or comments. It’s also useful to assess the sentiment of Facebook shares and Twitter retweets (at least via some human sampling of retweets and shares) to determine how positive your increased weighting should be. Shares that carry a negative sentiment should be viewed as debits, while shares that carry positive sentiment should be viewed as credits. Optimize your activity to favor content that is likely to get shared, and get to know who among your connections are most likely to share on your behalf.

There are several popular tools used by media agencies and PR departments for evaluating reach of product/brand mentions. But most impressions are counted as equal to one another. But let’s say your marketing target is mothers of young children. Wouldn’t you value a mention by Kelly Ripa more than Brian Williams? You can apply the same idea to blogs, tweets/retweets, etc. Assigning greater qualitative value where appropriate can help avoid the trap of shooting for a generic target PR impressions number.

Intermediate metrics are also useful. We certainly find value in common metrics such as Facebook page likes, post likes and comments. But these are often a just means to a greater end. By growing your Facebook page likes and driving ongoing engagement, you both expand your connections and give yourself a greater opportunity for earned/organic impressions in the future (since Facebook analyzes users’ interactions with brands to determine which content to serve in their news feeds). Executing under this understanding — that likes, comments, etc., are just worth treating as a sub-conversion — will help avoid the trap of hoarding low-value likes. Instead, focus on connecting with people who are likely to be very active. One million barely engaged fans aren’t nearly as valuable as 50,000 heavily engaged ones. Focus more on Facebook’s “engaged users” metric than merely the number of people who like your brand.

A second type of framework is based on conversion-performance metrics. Advertisers often have mixed results in driving revenue-based ROI from advertising within social media. This may depend on the immediate objectives of social media advertising and the product/service category. But there are many other (non-sales) conversion activities that can be driven very effectively through social media advertising, such as product video views, new Twitter followers and Facebook likes. And you certainly should optimize your social media advertising campaigns to maximize your investment. As with other forms of advertising, evaluate both placement and creative performance.

There are people with whom I work who are surely tired of hearing me say how much I “despise campaign totals and averages — they’re just big, dumb lies that hide thousands of tiny, valuable truths.” It’s how I’ve trained myself to think about how important it is to exercise rigor in identifying performance patterns among various targeting types. If you aren’t doing day-to-day management of your campaigns, make sure that the people who do clearly communicate with you about which targeting types are most and least successful — and what’s being done to optimize the campaign to find more of the former. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have all announced major targeting enhancements in recent months, so work in a constant state of experimentation. Key metrics here are conversion rate and cost-per-conversion, and both should be measured by targeting type.

Most marketers who buy ads on social media websites understand that creative burnout is a unique challenge. The bright side is that revising ads often requires minimal production. Ongoing creative optimization is essential for optimal success. But just refreshing ads with fresh ideas won’t get you repeatable success. Instead, focus on understanding key attributes of ad creative that works best, particularly when combined with unique targeting types. For one client, we found that images using Instagram-like photo filters performed particularly well against a particular target. We kept using the filters and swapped in fresh images routinely. Conversion-by-creative attribute/trait is a good metric. But combining top creative attributes that perform best when paired with different targeting types is even better.

Finally, consider diagnostic metrics. Are straight-from-the-report metrics such as tweet mentions, comments and video views useless? Of course not. But again, those numbers need context and insight. For the Super Bowl last February, we worked with our clients at Honda and Acura to create buzz-worthy ads that garnered very high tweets-per-second. But some of the most valuable insights can come from looking deeper into that data to spot common co-occurrence of words or themes, identifying tweets by highly influential people and highly popular retweets. Wherever possible, identify how well your metrics are aligned with your marketing communication goals. Sometimes particularly high numbers aren’t necessarily good, and sometimes there’s hidden value within lower numbers.

This framework is just a starting point to help validate the success metrics that you’re using. One of my favorite things to do is to question existing success metrics for all of our campaigns on a regular basis. When the KPIs used can stand up to true scrutiny, you can have confidence that you’ve come close to true measures of success. And while thinking like your best customers is often a key to successful social media marketing, only thinking like your customers may eventually get you fired/replaced for neglecting why you’re marketing within social media in the first place: to grow your business.

Do you have ideas for better measurement framework for evaluating social media success? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Mike Margolin oversees digital analytics, programmatic buying and relationship marketing at RPA, an independent, full-service advertising agency. Follow him @mmargolin and RPA @RPA_advertising.

Image via Shutterstock 

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