Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Joel Gn, a Singapore-based communications associate with web development firm Aeturnus.

Corporations today have only been too eager to jump on-board the social media bandwagon. This has inevitably resulted in the growth of various social media tools in the market, but the usual questions continue to surface: how are social media metrics translated into actionable insights? How do the measurements correlate with the ROI of the company or brand?

These questions seem to be metaphysical issues that all stakeholders have to contend with, but the argument that tools do not actually measure what they claim they can measure may actually be derived from a common but fatal misconception that tools are able to provide automated answers to any given event in the digital market.

Social media tools are just software programs, no more no less. The technical idea behind most, if not all of them, is relatively straightforward algorithms that are developed to capture data off the web, before they are presented as statistics to the end-user.

On this basis, web research and measurement firms will never be able to accurately deliver the insights you need or address the concerns you have for your market, as they are restricted by their own systems and processes. Although they are meant to help clarify the information gleaned from social media platforms, they will never be able to fully explain how their measurements will fit in to your bigger picture.

In order to address this problem, a paradigm shift for measuring and monitoring social media is required. So instead of merely using social media tools as magic bullets, here are four basic points that will enable you to maximize them easily and effectively.

Plan your strategy

Formulating specific hypotheses and setting clear objectives will go a long way in helping you select the appropriate tools and services for your social media strategy. If you’re just into campaign measurement, buzz analytics would come in handy. For crisis management, accurate sentiment analysis would enhance your response to the issues that have been the talk of the town. PR/communications professionals may want to be more focused on the users rather than the content, so tracking the overall activity of certain key influencers might be the way to go.

These are questions that tools are able to help you answer, but you need to first put the right questions in place. Tools alone do not differentiate between the various uses noted here, so you really need to be clear about what you want before you gather the necessary data. A graph or report with all the answers mashed up is as good as having no answers at all.

Analyze the right things

After you’ve got the plan, the next step would be to ensure that your data is valid and reliable. Validity, in this case, would be whether the results you have are answering the questions in your strategy. For example, 100 tweets containing mentions about a campaign may or may not be relevant to the campaign itself. The key here is to examine the context of the information and to work out the appropriate categorization for it.

Reliability is also equally important, because the data in your sample should contain the same characteristics if you repeat the process again. If the results from the tools differ significantly from that on a regular search engine, you might want to question the methodology behind the system.

Variables to check

With the right data in hand, it becomes necessary to study the observed trends before you make the appropriate response. You should also identify confounding variables that may lead you to make a false or inaccurate conclusion. A common example of a confounding variable can be found in astroturfing, where organizations (sometimes your own) may engage in advertising/public relations efforts that are designed to mimic consumer/grassroots behavior. Thus, the next time you see the same message re-posted across several sites, think again: it may or may not be from your target audience.

Educate your team

Last but not least, continue to educate your team on the appropriate use and adoption of social media tools. As discussed, there are many possible avenues where they can be deployed. Social media metrics are not exclusively marketing or PR tools; they are simply part of social media tools. Many corporations have been under the assumption that web research firms will be able to use social media metrics to figure out the missing links in their strategy, but such expectations are severely misplaced. At the end of the day, what really matters is how you understand and use the information generated from the tools, not the tool itself.

The advantages are clear, but one may still inquire: Who should PAVE the way? Can an agency developing the tool provide such a service too? Can it deliver a level of insight that enables you to make those quick decisions that are necessary for your company/brand? Do you get frustrated when the tools do not seem to understand the objectives of your strategy?

The line here is very thin. After all, tools are developed by social media specialists, not marketing/PR/brand executives. A good measurement/monitoring agency should be able to explain the complexities and dynamics underlying various social media platforms (e.g. the behaviour of Twitter vs Facebook users), but to go further into the context you want might just be a long and not so magical shot, don’t you think?

Joel GnBorn and bred in Singapore, Joel is an East Asian geek who indulges in comics, toys and virtual reality. He was a research analyst with global online intelligence provider Brandtology, before becoming the communications associate at Aeturnus, a local agency specializing in social applications. Besides social media and other digital phenomena, Joel also enjoys musing about pop culture and philosophy on his blog. You may drop him a message at joel – at – aeturnus.org.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://mytwittertoolbox.com David Perdew

    This is some good information, Joel. It proves there's a unique strategy that's different for every person that uses social media to market online. The depth of this exercise is getting more involved as we go along, and it certainly helps, as you say, to have a plan for knowing where you want to go ahead of time.

  • http://twitter.com/kdpaine Katie Delahaye Paine

    As Philip Graves says in Consumer.ology (a book I highly recommend) “ultimately success will be determined not by how thoroughly organizations research their customers, but by how astutely they are able to understand the response to what they are currently doing and how quickly they can evaluate and implement alternatives.”
    It's not about the tools and the data, it's about what you do with it, the decisions you make, and the success of your business as a result.

    • http://www.puredriven.com Patrick Garmoe

      Katie, just wanted to say I'm a newcomer to PR/Social Media from journalism. Jason turned me on to your book, and I'm currently in the midst of reading it. I really appreciate all the great information it's packed with. A definite must read for everyone in this industry.

  • http://www.puredriven.com Patrick Garmoe

    Thanks for the great post Joel,

    I think you've done a good job carrying the notion of a social media strategy beyond the basics. Only when these concepts are packaged together does a social media strategy really produce good results.

  • http://www.puredriven.com Patrick Garmoe

    Katie, just wanted to say I'm a newcomer to PR/Social Media from journalism. Jason turned me on to your book, and I'm currently in the midst of reading it. I really appreciate all the great information it's packed with. A definite must read for everyone in this industry.

  • Joel

    Thanks Patrick!

    To move beyond the framework, I think the next question to consider would be how these measurement tools/services can develop, market and sell their products to address targeted concerns within the clients' strategy. Instead of pushing for a standard “package” to a diverse clientele, perhaps greater collaboration between client and service provider would be more effective?

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  • http://twitter.com/roundpeg Lorraine Ball

    It's just data till you use it to revise your plan, change your actions and measure the results again, and again, and again!