Measuring the Impact of Social Media Communications

Few would argue that social media—blogs, microblogs, social networking sites, video- and image-sharing sites, online forums, opinion sites, knowledge/expert networks and more—have become critically important in the shaping of corporate or brand reputation.

But the hundreds of millions of outlets and the dynamic nature of social media have made it difficult to answer the simple question: “What are the most influential sites for my company, my industry or my campaign?” Obviously, navigating the sheer volume of sites is a challenge. In addition, there is an asymmetry to social media research: One site’s influence ranking can vary radically from one measurement to another, which reflects the different usage patterns and levels of interaction of different social media tools.

Original or “traditional” ways of measuring social media impact tracked the passive viewing or consumption of content by Internet users. First came hits, a rough measure of how many files are requested from a site. Then came page views, a slightly more meaningful gauge of a site’s reach, but still far from the perfect metric. As it became clear that page views were being skewed by heavy users who view dozens —even hundreds—of pages within a site, Web metrics research firms began moving toward unique visitors per month, which today remains a gold standard of audience measurement.

But the advent of video and multimedia sites—and especially microblogs (like Twitter), social networks and news-sharing sites—have driven demand for a new set of measures: social metrics. They reflect user activity and take into account not simply the numbers of eyeballs drawn to a site but the behaviors of people once they’re reeled in.

Content Sharing and ‘The Social Filter’

The big driver behind developing these new measurements is content sharing. In today’s world, online content, no matter where it originated, can live forever and be shared ad infinitum. Simply knowing how many people regularly read a particular blog where you or your client was mentioned won’t give you a true understanding of how influential that mention was. If that mention has made an impact, bloggers have re-blogged it; people have linked to it on Twitter and Facebook; others have posted it to social news- sharing sites like Digg and Delicious; and so forth.

A recent observation in The New York Times about politically motivated young Americans can be applied to the entire universe of social media users: “According to interviews and recent surveys, [they] tend to be not just consumers of news and current events but conduits as well, sending out e-mailed links and videos to friends and their social networks.

“And in turn, they rely on friends and online connections for news to come to them. In essence, they are replacing the professional filter—reading The Washington Post, clicking on—with a social one.”

To be sure, the professional filter still lends objectivity and credibility to news coverage. But in today’s world of social media, if a story lands behind a wall of premium content (, as an example), its impact can be diminished. Only a limited audience of paying subscribers (albeit a very influential and motivated group of readers) can link to it. The story might have been better placed on a site with free, open access—even if that site has a smaller or less elite audience —so that it may travel freely on the Web.

Social Metrics: The Big Three

Social metrics are designed to measure the social filter. We’ve identified multiple key social metrics, but three stand out:

•    Inbound links share your mention with whole new communities. They quantitatively measure how voraciously a piece of content is being shared. When you research sites for potential outreach, you can view all of the live inbound links that point toward that site. And if you have been mentioned in a post, you can track the links to that particular post.

•    Comments demonstrate audience engagement and are the only major social metric that tells you where your mention occurs within a post; comments provide both quantitative and qualitative insights. For example, blogs with vibrant commentary tend to score well on other social metrics because their readers are more likely to re-blog, link, tweet, bookmark, or refer new communities to the blog post in other ways. Examine the comments for yourself. Are they thoughtful and detailed? Is there dialogue among commenters? If comments tend to be one-liners or shout-outs to the blogger, the site may not be the best candidate for outreach.

•    Citations on news-sharing/bookmarking sites. Digg has over 20 million unique visitors per month—more than The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal digital editions combined. The Digg concept is simple: Submit a link to a news article, photo or video you find online, write a brief description, place it in a category and share it with the community. Like a social network, you can find people with common interests and “shout” stories to your friends.

Other Key Web and Social Metrics

In addition to the “Big Three,” there are other important measurements of social media influence and impact. They include:

•    Average time spent: the average time—in hours, minutes and seconds—each user spends on the site each time they visit. This metric is ideal for comparing sites with multimedia content, especially video.

•    Average visitors/month: the number of unique people visiting the site each month. This has long been the gold standard in traditional Web audience measurement. 

•    Media views (videos/images): the number of views of videos and images on the site in the past 30 days. This is a valuable metric for multimedia content.

•    Monthly site views: the number of Web pages viewed on the site per month.

•    Thread size (forums): the total number of posts per thread on a particular forum site in a 30-day period.

•    Unique commenters: the number of unique people commenting on a blog in a 30-day period.

•    Unique monthly sessions: the number of unique visits to a site. Each visit is counted once, regardless of how many pages each user views.

An Emerging Necessity

When communicators fail to catch all of the data that proves how far their mention was pushed across the social Web, they put themselves at a disadvantage in proving the return on investment for their outreach efforts.

In a challenging economy when many marketing and PR departments are struggling to justify their budgets, social metrics have become a key method for demonstrating the impact of their efforts.

This article was written by Jay Krall, manager for Internet media research at Cision US Inc. It currently appears in PR News Guide to Best Practices in PR Measurement, Volume 4. To order the guidebook or find out more information about it, go to