Last week, I discussed the success story of Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series of vampire romance novels. Meyer's use of social media played a role in the successful promotion of books that have sold over 25 million copies and that led to the blockbuster adaptation of her first book as a motion picture.
There is no doubt that Meyer's use of social media is worth noting and exploring more deeply, but for those who would hold it up as evidence that social media can be a panacea for any person or company looking to market themselves or their product, there are some caveats.
Unlike most advertisers, Meyer was promoting her life's passion. Her successful use of social media was, in many ways, predicated on the fact that she didn't appear to be using social media in a commercial fashion. It didn't matter if her efforts reached 10 people or 1,000. Cost and ROI weren't issues - she was investing her time freely and she almost certainly wasn't measuring the outcome of her efforts as nearly all businesses are naturally required to do.
In other words, to Meyer, metrics didn't matter. Unfortunately, metrics to matter when dealing with advertisers and the lack of established metrics is one of social media's biggest challenges in going from novelty to necessity.
Let's look at the metrics that matter most:
Usage. If social media is all about 'engagement', as many argue, how does one measure engagement on social media properties? Is it registered users? Active users? Pageviews? Application installs?
In other words, when an advertiser buys a social media ad campaign, what exactly is the advertiser getting?
There's really no consensus on this and seemingly simple metrics like 'registered users' have, interestingly, become far more confusing over the years.
Case in point - Circle of Moms, a new social network for moms. Last week, TechCrunch reported that "The site, launched in October 2008, has already grown to over 850,000 registered users."
That wasn't entirely accurate. Circle of Moms is a Facebook application that launched a standalone website. Its 'users' can interact with both. All indicators are that the vast majority of Circle of Moms' users are interacting with the two-month-old Facebook application - not the website at CircleOfMoms.com.
Yet because Facebook has restrictions on the amount of data that applications can collect, how do we define (and value) Circle of Moms' 'users'? Are they even really Circle of Moms' users? A media buyer is going to have a tough time answering these questions, which is problematic if he's looking to spend money from anywhere other than the smaller budget usually allocated to experimental ad campaigns.
Cost. Cost is typically an easy metric to define and measure. If I buy 10 million banner ad impressions at a $3 CPM, my campaign cost is $30,000, not including creative, set-up and a handful of other things that are easy to put a number on and therefore to budget for.
Social media is a bit different. A company might spend a few thousand dollars setting up a blog, $50,000 setting up a Facebook page or a whopping $0 setting up a Twitter account. But what's the cost of writing blog posts over the long haul, maintaining a Facebook page or tweeting on a regular basis?
More importantly, how many blog posts do you need to post to make the exercise effective? How much effort needs to be invested in your Facebook page to see a return? How much 'engagement' must you strive to create on Twitter to realize some positive effect? Advertisers are not interested in simply 'getting started' - they want to know how much they need to invest so as to produce a successful outcome.
From this perspective, measuring and projecting cost is often difficult to do in social media since the greatest cost of social media is time. Time invested is often variable as is how it is utilized. Unless you have an employee dedicated to social media and his salary is factored in to the equation, cost is very ethereal and is usually greater than one might assume given the relatively low 'startup costs' of social media.
ROI. These three letters have probably caused more headaches for those in social media than anything else.
Some once pitched social media as having the potential to be a direct sales revolution - advertise your product and service and let your message spread virally from friend to friend. If one friend 'recommends' your product, for instance, you're much more likely to see other friends make a purchase. It hasn't quite worked out that way.
So now social media is primarily pitched as a branding medium. Start a 'conversation' and in the process, you'll build a 'relationship', which will in turn help your brand gain credibility and stay relevant. Eventually something good will happen.
Some social media proponents essentially argue that since advertisers waste lots of money on 'branding' in other mediums, holding social media to a higher standard is unfair.
There's a problem with this, of course, and that's the fact that 'branding' in other mediums has been correlated to sales. Take television - one of the reasons television advertising has held up better than expected is that it's a known quantity. Over the decades, advertisers have been able to correlate television advertising directly with increased sales.
Until social media finds a way to measure some of its effects directly on the bottom line, ROI will continue to be one metric that is a liability, not an asset.
At the end of the day, the importance of metrics is crucial to the development of any new advertising medium. Without metrics, advertisers obviously have no way to easily evaluate what they're buying, how much their campaigns will cost and how their success will be evaluated.
It's important to remember that in the advertising world, where billions of dollars are managed by ad agencies who are basically instructed to spend money efficiently, knowing how to evaluate what's being purchased, project cost and measure success is absolutely crucial to the economics of doing business and getting deals done.
Just as a venture capitalist with a $500mn fund can't invest a few hundred thousand dollars in a couple thousand startups, a media buyer can't invest huge ad budgets across lots of social media campaigns that are individually 'unique.'
Right now, there is still far too much debate over metrics in the social media realm. There are no 'standards' and oftentimes, social media proponents argue that advertisers need to 'change their thinking.' That doesn't cut it. Social media practitioners need to define what advertisers are buying, how much it'll cost and how they'll be able to measure the return.
Until they do this, social media will remain an interesting but confusing novelty that may get some money from experimental ad budgets but won't get money from the ad budgets that can make the medium.
Unfortunately, in this recession, those experimental ad budgets are already being cut. If social media is to survive this serious downturn and emerge as the robust advertising medium it was supposed to become, proponents had better start focusing on the metrics. Find the metrics, find the money.