How the Metric Was Done (or Will Be)

I'm obsessed with Westerns, and it occurred to me that the progress of social media resembles the settling of the Old West: small pioneer groups blaze trails across the new landscape, sparking the interest of larger groups who arrive later. As the population increases, businesses spring up to serve the growing numbers of settlers and take advantage of new resources. Eventually, the initial lawlessness gives way to increasing demands for law and order, pushed by legitimate businesses and ordinary citizens afraid that outlaws will jeopardize their newfound prosperity (in part by deterring continued immigration). While competition was taken for granted, one of the dominant themes of the Old West was the recognition of the need for communal goods like law enforcement, a system for registering property ownership, and so on.

Another of the key elements in the expansion of civilization along the frontier was the availability of a common currency, as primitive systems of barter gave way to more traditional kinds of commerce. Likewise, one of the key elements in the taming of the still-wild (social media scene) will be the introduction of some kind of common currency, or maybe even a couple common currencies, for measuring the impact of social media advertising campaigns. 

Quite what this will look like, I couldn't say, but it's clear nonetheless that marketing and advertising execs would love to have some concrete, reliable metrics for social media ROI. Ideally these metrics would detail the advantages and shortcomings of various social media platforms. By identifying strengths and weaknesses, the metrics would allow media buyers and planners to find ways to make all their different media options work together.

Defining social media ROI will require answering a series of important questions -- and because social media advertising is a dynamic market, these questions will probably be answered on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis, by companies that are actually working in the field and reporting back certain broadly-applicable findings.

Of course there will be a certain amount of information about successful campaigns they naturally hold back -- their "secret sauce" -- but there is at least as much reason to pool some of the useful information creative and media planning and buying agencies cull from their big wins. This is the very sensible consensus behind trade organizations like the Interactive Advertising Bureau. In short, there is always plenty of time and space for competition, but in some circumstances it also behooves competitors to cooperate.

Measurement is the great equalizer in this regard, as advertising clients now demand not only accountability and comparability within media, but also between media. In the brave new world, social media must eventually stand alongside television, magazine readership, radio listening, other online behaviors, word-of-mouth, outdoor advertising, and the list goes on. Taking a step back, the big picture is one of evolving metrics for all media, changing in tandem with the media themselves. New capabilities in ad delivery are outpacing the means of measurement all across the board, leaving research companies are racing to catch up.  But one thing remains certain: in this complicated world, in a truly chaotic state, we require quantitative data (and almost certainly a wide variety of quantitative data) to make sense of what we are doing.

Which brings us back to square one: getting competitors to work together, at least to some degree. Following that line of reasoning, I would like to draw your attention to a very good commentary by Reggie Bradford, founder and CEO of Vitrue, published in MediaPost's Marketing Daily newsletter on Wednesday, May 5. Bradford points out that competitive tension can be both constructive and destructive, depending on the attitude of the individuals and companies involved. Obviously, nailing down social metrics calls for the constructive approach. But that doesn't necessarily come easily to fiercely competitive entrepreneurial types; it probably doesn't help that social media, where many of these conversations are (fittingly) taking place, is often distinguished by a certain, how shall I say, bitchy sniping, especially when people can post anonymous comments.

Thus Bradford lamented some of the initial reactions to a post by Buddy Media about Facebook social media metrics. While conversation and criticism is the whole point of posting findings online, Bradford noted that some reactions were just mean-spirited attacks that contributed nothing to the actual subject at hand. It's a free country, and of course people can say whatever they want, but I agree with Bradford that it would be unfortunate if this kind of "gotcha" attitude prevented companies from sharing their findings and musings about social media metrics. People will be more willing to go out on a limb if they aren't afraid that some anonymous competitor is going to saw it off.

Turning again to the big picture, the process of producing reliable social media metrics will necessarily require the industry to move through a series of less-than-satisfactory precursors, which will ultimately prove transitory -- milestones on the way to a more-or-less finished product. It's silly (and unhelpful) to expect any of the precursors to solve all the problems at once; rather, a complex, long-term discussion of this sort calls for patience, open-mindedness, and civility.

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