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Tracking the KPIs of Social Media

Social media receives a massive amount of attention on the web and attracts a great deal of interest from marketers, too. The primary complaint of those who invest seems to be consistent: it's hard to measure the impact to the bottom line. On this point, I must concede - while social's an exciting new area for online marketers, its value isn't always commensurate with the effort required and even when it is, it's tough to prove that point to clients or executives asking for justification.
This post is here to help. In it, I'll try to take a brief look at the topics surrounding this problem and offer some solutions, tools and methodologies to make things easier.

Why + Where Social Matters

Social media has an analytics problem. Whereas many other sources - ads, organic search, referrals, bookmarks - all drive traffic that directly converts (i.e. results in a purchase/signup action), social traffic is very temporal. Visitors from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, StumbleUpon, et al. are known to visit a page and quickly depart. This leaves marketers struggling to understand the value of these channels. High bounce rates, low browse rates and awful conversion rates make social the black sheep of the referring traffic sources.
I'll try to explain the problem, and the reason why social still matters, despite these poor metrics, in visual form:
Conversion Funnel Featuring Social Media
On the web, visitors are rarely buyers (or "conversion action" takers of any kind) on a first visit. The web's a tool for discovery, research and investigation and people employ it that way. They browse around, find things that are interesting, discover potential needs or desires, further examine the options and eventually make a purchase decision.
For most, the web is less like the checkout aisle at the grocery store (stocked with tempting treats and not-so-tempting magazines, at least IMO) and more like the considered purchase of a grill, television set or automobile. Social media isn't the deal closer - it's the channel that creates potential for a future conversion. Social media can create brand familiarity and drive visitors to content that further draws them in, but it very rarely directly answers an expressly-stated need.
Let's take a look at a typical buying cycle for someone who takes a free trial of SEOmoz's software and look where social falls in the process:
Lifecycle of Brand Impressions Prior to Conversion
Twitter and Facebook are early on in the process, likely prior to this customer's realization of need or knowledge of the product. Social channels are likely to be partially responsible for thousands of free trials at SEOmoz, but given the tools currently available, we'd have a very tough time figuring out just how much social participation and presence brought to the company.
Another great illustration of this phenomenon comes via Eloqua's Content Grid, which explores the types of content shared on various channels (including social media) and its impact on the buying process:
Eloqua's Content Grid
Social media does lots of good things for businesses and brands on the web:
  • Drives traffic
  • Builds brand familiarity
  • Creates positive associations with the brand
  • Delivers social proof via the people sharing the content and discussing the brand
  • Attracts brand followers and evangelists who can help spread the word
The Atlantic recently had an article talking about why good advertising works, and many of the same principles apply to social media but are, in my opinion, even more powerful because they're not interruption-based, but inbound and organic. If 10 of the people I follow on Twitter or Google+ start sharing links to a new startup's website, I'm going to be far more engaged, impressed and enticed than if that same startup put banner ads on some of the websites I browse. Both create brand awareness, but social is more personal, more trustworthy and more likely to capture my click.
We know that social is a softer, more-difficult-to-measure traffic source, but we're inbound marketers and that means we can't live without data :-) So let's explore some of the ways we can monitor this channel.

Which Social Metrics to Track

In the social media analytics world, there are several key types of metrics we're interested in tracking:
  • Traffic data - how many visits and visitors did social drive to our sites?
  • Fan/follower data - how many people are in our various networks and how are they growing?
  • Social interaction data - how are people interacting with, sharing and re-sharing our content on social networks?
  • Social content performance - how is the content we're producing on social sites performing?
Getting the right metrics to answer these questions requires segmenting by network. Not every question will have direct answers in the data, so we may need to make assumptions or inferences.
Facebook offers a relative wealth of data about nearly all the metrics we care about through their built-in product for brand pages, Facebook Insights:
Facebook Share Story CTR
Facebook demographics

Here you can track key metrics over time, including the size of your fanbase, the reach and effectiveness of your content, the quantity of likes and shares of your content, demographics of your fans and more.
Insights also has a very unique and powerful feature - integration on your website. Using a small bit of Javascript code, you can embed the Facebook Insights functionality on your site and receive information about all the users visiting your pages that are logged into Facebook. Since it's been well-covered on SEOmoz (and around the web), I won't dwell too much on Insights other than to say it's the most robust of the built-in, social platform analytics tools by far.