Has to be There
I find it really interesting that whenever there is a discussion of measuring the value of social media, there’s such a bias towards believing there is value in social beyond what can be properly measured. See the comments following this post by Avinash for a good example. Speculation is fine, but the confidence being expressed that a new tool or method will uncover a treasure trove of social media value seems un-scientific (as in scientific method) at best.
I don’t doubt there is some value in social media beyond what can be measured, as this has been the case for all marketing since marketing measurement began. These measurement problems are not new to social either: Marketing value created is often situational, it depends on the business model and environment. What works in one situation may not work in another.
To small local businesses who do no other form of advertising, there is a huge amount of relative value to using social media versus no advertising at all. Social advertising is much better than none, and since it’s free, the incremental value created by (properly) using social is huge. It’s also really easy to measure the impact and true value, since the baseline control is “no advertising”. Lift, or actual net marketing performance, can be pretty obvious in his case.
On the other hand, many companies are running lots of advertising designed to create awareness, and the incremental value of social as a “media” may be close to zero for these companies, or at least less than the cost to analyze the true value of it. Possible explanation: Social events such as “Likes” or comments are simply representations or affirmations of awareness already created by other media, so by themselves, create little value. In other words, events such as Likes might track the value of other media spending, but may not create much additional marketing value.
Why is this plausible? It seems unlikely a person would “Like” a brand or product if they have not already experienced it, and are already a fan. This means in the vast majority of cases, little incremental awareness / acquisition is created. If this case is not true, if people “Like” a company even though they have no reason to (paid to Like?), then the problems with social marketing analysis go way beyond tools – the concept and data driving the analysis itself is flawed.
But if Like really means Like, the number of Likes or any other similar social events do not have as much to do with awareness as they do with the size of a loyal customer base, and are much more aligned with tracking the success of other awareness / acquisition campaigns.
Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places?
That all said, I believe there is some value being created in the acquisition / awareness area from social. The problem seems to be this value, when measured, is quite a bit less than everyone expects. So “the hunt for social value” seems never ending, with speculation and measurements contrived from thin air immensely popular. This missing value just has to be there, right?
The core problem is an old one: online value measurement definitions are all over the map, so it’s easy to claim value was created by simply inventing a new way to measure success. I can’t wait for the day when established test and measurement standards (like using control groups) are adopted in the online space.
If you’re unfamiliar with using control groups, the simple explanation is this: just because someone was exposed to a message does not mean it changed their intended behavior, as in visiting your site. If you want to measure cause and not just correlation, finding the lift or incremental value created by exposure, use control groups – just like in drug testing. (11/2014: Google just published a Think piece on this, see #4 in download here).
Meanwhile, I think it’s quite possible if people keep looking in the awareness / acquisition area, the value of social “beyond what can now be measured”, in many cases, is probably less than the cost of actually measuring it.
Why this approach? Based on my experience, People are Social, Media are not. So if you want to derive social value, you use people metrics, not media metrics.
Using this approach, I have unbridled optimism for the value of social.
But I won’t go as far as insisting value is there without measuring it properly first. Because that’s not how science works.
See ya at eMetrics NYC!
P.S. There’s lots of real experimental science out there on the effects of social media in the marketing space, have you reviewed it?
You will find this material to be a treasure trove of new ideas and proper methods worth pursuing in the social measurement space, example here on measuring “influence”. Get yourself a subscription to the journal Marketing Science or similar. If you are a DAA member, you can request a copy of this fully documented, peer-reviewed scientific experiment on measuring influence at bottom of page.