Measuring Social Media: More Than Fans and Followers

It's the age-old question that still stumps many PR professionals: What's the most accurate way to measure public relations? It's relatively easy to count numbers of clips, but that doesn't reflect the full scope of a public relations initiative. The hard part is accounting for the intangibles, such as swaying public opinion.

Don't look now, but that sticky measurement question has resurfaced—this time online. How do you measure the value of Twitter, Facebook, blogging or other social media efforts? What's the point of initiating an online conversation or developing a strong digital presence?

Back to Basics

Without question, PR 2.0 has forced practitioners to operate from a new paradigm; however, that doesn't mean everything is radically different. And that's especially true when it comes to measurement.

As Chuck Hemann, research manager with Dix-Eaton, explains, measurement, whether traditional or social, should drive every segment of the process.

"The process by which you engage in social media measurement is no different than traditional measurement. The most important, and first step, to any successful measurement program is developing measurable goals and objectives. Without that, everything else falls apart," Hemann advises. "After that, the focus shifts to benchmarking, tweaking your goals, implementing your plan, tweaking the plan and then measuring at the end."

Measuring Engagement and Influence

But, what are we actually measuring? Fans and followers? Web site traffic?

Sort of, but not really.

From a PR perspective, social media measurement comes in two forms: engagement and influence.
Engagement can be determined by a combination of the following metrics:

•    Twitter followers, re-tweets and link open rates: Free services like, or HootSuite track how often a link sent via Twitter is opened. It's easy to create an account on any one of these sites. Also, you can track when posts are retweeted to see how many people your message is reaching. One word of caution: Management and boards may want to keep tabs on Twitter followers, but keep in mind that there are many services designed to "game the system,” which means creating inflated, meaningless connections.
•    Blog comments and inbound links: It's easy to tell the difference between an engaged blogging community and one that is only partially paying attention. Engaged readers take the time to leave comments and participate in community discussions. Blog measurement also includes inbound links. WordPress, a popular blogging platform, accumulates a list of links from other pages, making this easy to measure. 
•    Web site and blog traffic: Google Analytics, another free tool, tracks visitors, bounce rates and average time on the site. Repeat visitors can indicate loyalty—a key factor of a strong network. Additionally, these tools help you determine how readers are navigating the site, where they're coming from (geo-targeting) and what search terms they're using.
•    Facebook fans, wall posts and discussion comments: Convincing someone to "fan" a Facebook page is only half the battle. Sparking participation in discussions and comments on wall posts, along with empowering these people to share content with their network, is the more challenging—yet beneficial—task at hand.
•    YouTube ratings or videos embedded on other sites: Track which videos generate the most comments or discussions. Also, monitor where videos are being embedded.

Think of this list as a "measurement starter kit," but understand that it's not comprehensive. FriendFeed subscribers, RSS subscriptions and widget interactions and uploads can shed light on engagement as well. Plus, more advanced services can measure authority, sentiment and relevance, which really highlights if the proverbial needle is moving ... or not.

On the other hand, measuring influence—behavioral changes stemming from the aforementioned social media engagement—is more complex. Demonstrating that a social media initiative resulted in more sales, increased customer satisfaction or a shift in public opinion will most likely require some type of formal research. That said, not all companies have the budget to conduct in-depth studies. If that's the case, steal a page from Nordstrom's social media playbook: Ask your network to complete online surveys. Recently, Nordstrom issued a 15-question survey asking questions such as:
•    Have you ever visited a Nordstrom as a direct result of an update on Facebook or Twitter?
•    What kinds of information would you be most interested in seeing from Nordstrom on social sites such as Facebook and Twitter? 

Free services like TwtPoll or simplify the survey creation process. While these kinds of polls may not adhere to scientific research standards, they will produce metrics to assess social media value.

The New ROI (Insight)

In years past, ROI (return on investment) served as the yardstick for measuring traditional marketing campaigns. Did the campaign generate the desired results and how did they stack up against the costs?
Well, that’s just another concept that has evolved, thanks to flourishing online communities. As David Armano, vice president of experience design for Critical Mass, a marketing agency, wrote in BusinessWeek, marketers can listen, learn and adapt … thanks to new focus groups.
By listening and engaging the collective through all phases of our initiatives, we now have opportunities not only to be more in tune with customer needs, but also to adapt as quickly as they do. In our digital world, that could be the most important ROI possible.
In addition to monitoring social media to gauge customer reactions, companies can engage networks, particularly Twitter, in informal, but extremely informative, focus groups. One example: Springpad, a service that provides online notebooks and list-making tools to help people stay organized. In January 2009, they asked their Twitter network to participate in a one-hour discussion. The Springpad moderator asked four questions, mainly focusing on service use and user interface. Participants offered their feedback and input; the moderator asked follow up questions, much like a typical focus group. While the results aren’t scientific, Springpad received valuable feedback about potential enhancements, how the product is being used and areas for improvement.

This new “I”—insight gained from listening to online communities—will help PR practitioners make better decisions and ultimately deliver a stronger product. Clients will get more bang for their buck, which is critically important during this challenging economy. In this ultra-competitive marketing landscape, the winners will be those companies that understand how to incorporate insight to strengthen the return on investment.

Case Study: Coalition for the Homeless

All of this sounds good in theory, but does it actually work without breaking the bank? The Central Florida Coalition for the Homeless believes it does and they have the measurable results to prove it. In December 2008, the Coalition decided to test the social-media waters by creating and implementing a social media strategy centered on three primary goals: 1) to change perspectives on homelessness; 2) to increase volunteer involvement; 3) and to secure additional donations.

Per the recommendations in the plan, the Coalition created a blog, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts. (They also established YouTube and Flickr accounts, which are in use, but are not as active.) Next, the organization identified a staff person who would be responsible for monitoring and participating in social networks—in addition to her existing PR and marketing responsibilities. Specifically, her mission was to connect with local residents and businesses.

The Coalition can provide a litany of statistics to illustrate the value of their social media efforts, including Twitter followers (nearly 1,000 in six months) and retweets, Facebook fans (219 fans and another 157 cause members) or blog traffic, which continues to increase every month. But, the most effective way to demonstrate the value of social media isn't in these metrics. Social media matters to the Coalition because when they needed extra help, their online network—people who were strangers just months ago—stepped up to the plate.

The economic turbulence led to a drastic drop in food donations from individuals and in the food supplies available from local food banks. To help meet the shortage facing the Coalition, they decided to test the strength of their online network by launching a bold challenge to the local community: the “Orlando ‘Can’ Care Challenge.” This social-media driven food drive was promoted via Twitter, Facebook and the organization's blog.

During the weeklong challenge, the Coalition tweeted and Facebooked updates as new donations were brought in and posted photos to Flickr of each donation or group. By the end of the week, with only a few hours of staff time invested in the project, the Coalition was surprised to learn that their networked produced more than 1,000 pounds of food, more than double the initial Can Care Challenge goal.

What is the takeaway then for businesses and other non-profits? Don't think that every tweet or blog post will lead to a direct sale, a new business opportunity or a donation. However, the time spent strategically building and cultivating a network will pay off—that is, as long as the first step in the planning process involves identifying goals and quantifiable objectives. Establish engagement and influence targets, and then develop the road map to achieve measurable success.

This article appears in PR News Guide to Best Practices in PR Measurement, Volume 4. It was written by Heather Whaling, director of PR for Costa DeVault. To find out how to order the guidebook, go to

  • Chuck Hemann

    Thanks, Heather, for including my quote in your story. We’re making social measurement harder than it needs to be. The process by which we measure social media activities is no different than traditional. Lets focus on doing great benchmark research and then on measurable goals/objectives. If we nail those, the rest of the game becomes easier.