As more brands look to invest in the minefield that is social media marketing, it’s clear that standards are needed to define and measure success. However, marketers need to establish industry-wide best practices first and understand what they want to achieve, before tying down the metrics.

At E-consultancy’s recent Social Media roundtable, it was apparent that measurement is an issue that many marketers are still wrestling with.

Social media empowers everyone (not just early adopters and technologists) to express themselves, start conversations and create their own content.

However, this open and free form of communication still leaves many companies struggling to find a natural way to start conversations with their customers.

Rather than adopting a “me-too approach”, companies need to put the interests of their customers at the heart of their marketing strategy and determine how to add value.

Take Twitter, for example. For every company using it well, (such as Zappos, where you can “tweet” with the CEO and even win yourself a free pair of shoes), there’s a DirectTV type company, entering the space to simply buck the social media trend. With a limited number of updates, mostly from an automated feed, and only nine followers, it’s worth considering just how much value DirectTV is adding for their customers.

Participate, don’t pitch

Regardless of how many times online PR people tell bloggers to “feel free” to promote their content on their behalf, consumers will only distribute online content through social channels when it provides value for them over and above just providing value for the brand.

As this clever music video by Weezer illustrates, success in “going viral” requires a bit of creativity together with an understanding of whom the company is potentially targeting.

Sony Bravia’s ‘PlayDoh’ advert (following on from the success of  ‘Balls’ and ‘Paint’) provides a good example of best practice. As well as creating a visually stunning (and original, depending on your perspective) TV ad, Sony made videos and images available to users to download on their microsite, encouraging online “contributers” to distribute content from the ad through viral channels, including YouTube, Flickr, and del.icio.us.

Show me the money

The buzz around social media is focused around “conversational marketing,” and principally the ease of forming a direct relationship with customers. When it comes to allocating marketing budgets however, measuring the return on investment from social media and tying it the bottom line is of key importance.This often means that social media marketing suffers chronically from “chicken and egg syndrome”.

Without tangible results, it’s difficult to justify increasing budget for social media campaigns when demonstrating successful outcomes often requires significant investment in the first place.  

However, this is something that is naturally changing, as the industry grows and matures. Initiatives such as the open source movement, MeasurementCamp, bring together leading industry experts to structure social media marketing through standard frameworks and metrics to measure its impact both online and offline.

The issue of measurement was a key discussion point at E-consultancy’s recent Online PR roundtable. As demand for tangible metrics increases, more PR companies and specialist agencies are offering tools to monitor buzz and measure online reputation.

Yet for many marketers, measurement remains an after-thought, as removing the educational silos to get senior management buy-in to invest in social media in the first place is the first step towards implementing a successful campaign.

(On the subject of measuring value, it’s worth checking out E-consultancy’s very own case study on
Social Media Monetisation
, first presented by our CEO Ashley Friedlein at Internet World in April).

Benefits and best practice

It’s clear that tremendous benefits can be reaped when marketers get it right. AKQA and PG Tips’ recent efforts to “bring back Al and Monkey” not only delivered a PR value of £100,000, but also meant that the brand was seen 37 million times, with some rich media delivering a click-through rate of over 20%.

To some extent, the greater push for industry standards and wider availability of tools for monitoring online reputation means that measurement is gradually becoming less of an an uphill struggle.

However, to derive the most value from social media, marketers need to first tie down exactly what they want to achieve and then determine how to measure success.

For more information, market trends and the latest statistics, check out E-consultancy’s recently published free Roundtable Briefings on Online PR and Social Media.