Businesses have always struggled to measure quality. The challenge in social media is no better. In fact, it’s considerably worse. 

Even the best attempts at measuring quality of a customer relationship, such as Net Promoter Score (NPS), rely on numbers, in the case of NPS a ranking from one to 10, and this has always seemed somehow inadequate to convey the different values and feelings involved. 

Google has done a reasonable job of measuring the quality of content published online and ranking it accordingly, yet if you search for “social media quality” you’ll be presented with a list of deeply mediocre, SEO-focused blog posts on the topic.

Perhaps Google’s Authorship will fix this, but the challenge is clear.

So what does quality mean in the context of social media?

Facebook’s EdgeRank gives a different weighting to different content types, so that more of your fans are likely to see status update or photo that you post than they are a link or a video.

This kind of makes sense, though the weighting of each type keeps changing, it also doesn’t guarantee high-quality content, as the recent slew of low-grade Harlem Shake videos ably demonstrated.

Similarly, even the more sophisticated influence grader tools are quite crude in their findings. Three of the top 10 “influencers” in a list for the term social media measurement that I recently created turned out to be auto-Tweeting people (aka spamming) using the phrase “social media ROI”. Not much genuine influence or quality there.

But perhaps I’m missing the point.

Who am I to say that the Harlem Shake videos are rubbish? If people enjoyed watching them, shared them and commented on them – surely they’ve voted with their response.

Quality is subjective to each person, each brand, each industry, so if you know your customers really well, perhaps grainy dance videos are just the tonic. Maybe funny cat photos work best; or cheesy inspirational quotes. 

Maybe we should judge the quality of content on the results it achieves

Last year Yorkshire Tea made this simple post (below) on its Facebook Page – and I’ve used it as an example ever since.

Objectively the quality is pretty low, it’s a filler-post really, but more the 400 people enjoyed it enough to Like, comment on or share it with their friends. It will have attracted new fans, consolidated their relationship with many existing fans, and delivered brand awareness to friends of fans. Job done, surely?

Yorkshire Tea Facebook engagement

Facebook’s EdgeRank, again, differentiates between different forms of engagement, with a Like being of minimal value, comments being good, and shares being better. But, again, this needs qualifying: if I make a damning criticism when I share the post, does it still warrant being ranked as a high-value engagement? 

Facebook has tried to counter this by allowing negative feedback (un-following or hiding posts) to impact on Facebook post reach. So bad quality posts, even ones that lot of people Like, might have their reach restricted if enough people dislike them too.

The measurement by results approach is particularly evident on Twitter. Leon Chaddock, CEO of Sentiment Metrics, a monitoring tool, sums up the prevailing view, saying:

Although quality is a very subjective definition, the usual way we would infer quality is the pickup of a mention. For instance, how much the original mention is shared, such as the number of re-tweets on Twitter.

This, plus a calculation of a tweet’s reach, is a fairly standard measurement.

Yet Matt Owen of Econsultancy recently questioned how, for some tweets, Econsultancy receives fewer visits than re-tweets.

One of the commenters on the post pointed out that many people re-tweet well-written tweets without even clicking through to the content themselves. In this sense, a high quality tweet might get a positive result (RTs), but possibly miss the goal (web traffic).

This raises the question of the quality of results. One of our clients recently commented that the traffic we refer to their website via social channels had dropped in recent months.

The main reason, of course, was the Christmas lull, but it gave me an opportunity to point out that visitors we send to the site have the lowest bounce rate and stay on the site twice as long as other visitors. That’s good quality traffic.

Katy Howell, CEO of social media agency, Immediate Future, echoes this approach. She stresses that maintaining a high level of quality requires an iterative process of measurement and refinement:

We work with a B2B company, helping them share links and content on LinkedIn. We evaluate the quality of every piece of content. We optimise it: analysing what topics, types and even styles of content work best, finessing the content to drive better results.

So the quality of results is the primary indicator of how good their content was.

In the context of social media, it’s clear to me that, without a deeply subjective analysis, quality means nothing. You can get low-grade content that delivers amazing results, nobodies who rank as influencers, full-on engagement that’s actually negative and mindless engagement that drives excellent traffic. 

It’s equally clear that all the measurement tools, graders and methodologies on the market are utterly worthless unless you develop deep and fluid understanding of your customer’s desires. Thankfully, social media is one of the most data rich environments around, so the answers to the quality question are there; we just need to find them for ourselves.

Image credit: KB35 via Flickr

Join me for a discussion on “Quality: The Forgotten Metric” and a fascinating line-up of measurement and monitoring talks at #Measure13 in London on 27th March.