The uncertainty about the future of Facebook has a lot to do with the uncertainty about its metrics. If “social” -- the mentions of brands and recommendations from friends and companies -- is indeed the future of the online advertising business, it is about time we come up with media-like standard metrics to plan and evaluate social advertising.
Although there’s no shortage of measurement companies in social media, such standards are yet to emerge. The increased curiosity of marketers about social networking gave birth to hundreds of "listening" research vendors that perfected the art of monitoring discussion volumes and delivering dashboards centered on posts and mentions of specific issues or brands. The number of times a brand or company is mentioned in blogs, on Facebook or Twitter is generally of interest to advertisers, especially when supplemented with sophisticated sentiment analysis that discerns positive brand mentions from the negative.
Alas, this number cannot be used for planning, buying and optimizing campaigns. It’s time to stop merely counting the posts and bring in the social media impression. The industry is ripe, and all that’s needed is to connect listening tools with metered panel data. While a listening platform records a single post on your brand, that mention is actually read/seen by X number of people. That number is the count of social impressions for that post. Calculating this for all brand mentions will give an idea of the total social impressions recorded for your brand, which we can compare to the volume of paid impressions. By matching that data to the panel for de-duplication, demographics and psychographics, the social media data can complement the campaign opportunity-to-see measures with "social media GRPs."
The "liking" of a brand on Facebook is not an impression; it is an engagement metric. Seeing a "like" posted by someone else, however, is more like being served an impression -- broadcasted by someone who has a high affinity for a brand. Although "liking" is largely unique to Facebook, the same model can be extended to Twitter and LinkedIn followers, along with those who check in with a location based social network such as Foursquare.
The next step would be to discern the value of such GRPs/impressions. One method to assign a value to your earned social media activity would be to estimate how much it would cost to deliver the same volume of impressions through a paid media campaign.
A good average CPM value might be the CPM of ad networks in the paid media campaign, since the site mix could be a good proxy for the earned media site mix.
This calculation could be a useful first step to assess the value of social exposure relative to other media activity. It can sometimes be overly simplistic, however, to equalize social media impression with that of paid media. While a paid media buy comes with various assurances as to where the impression will run, an earned social media impression might be just the 73rd comment on an article. Moreover, while paid media are almost always casting the brand in a positive light, this is not true in social content, where negative consumer feedback is common. So certain adjustments, weights and normalizations are required before a social media impression becomes more like a usual impression.
An alternative method will be to estimate the value of social media impressions in terms of ROI. The most robust (but also most complex and time-consuming) approach would be to create a marketing mix model to explain variations in sales for a brand. This will allow us to understand the impact of all factors that combine to drive sales (e.g., distribution, promotions, advertising, economic factors) and the interaction between them. These results would allow us to see the impact of social media on sales, but also see the dual impact of paid media investment through driving sales directly, and also by driving online buzz.