The Illusion of Accountability

by Tom Webster |

This may sound slightly ironic, coming from me, but I think sometimes we fall a little too in love with metrics. The Internet has trained a new generation of marketers and brand managers to expect that every impression, message, action and conversion should be measurable and trackable, and “less measurable” media such as TV, Print and Radio have suffered as a result. Today, social media is part of that conversation, and the tools and techniques to measure social engagement efforts are legion.

Last Wednesday, at the Inbound Marketing Summit in Boston, I spoke about all the things that we miss when we measure social media exclusively through online means. The short course: social media engagement influences a variety of online and offline behaviors, attitudes and yes, actions that take place online and offline throughout all parts of the “marketing funnel.” The funnel is still valid – but with social media, prospects and customers are no longer “required” to enter the funnel at the top – they can slide in anywhere from brand-aware to brand evangelist. Your company’s social engagement efforts play a role throughout the process whether they are tied to a click or not.

Vintage abacuses
Image by H is for Home via Flickr

Still, online measures are crucial to gauging the full import of your social media efforts, but those measures don’t often mean what we assume them to mean. Even basic measures, like a simple accounting of brand “mentions,” are often assigned greater value than they are, in fact, able to support. Mentions themselves are a bit of a random walk, and we can often succumb to hindsight-derived reasons for troughs and spikes that may or may not have any relation to the truth.

An even more sinister aspect of “mentions,” however, is that I often see them conflated with “awareness” or even consideration. In my IMS presentation, I purposefully dropped a brand mention for Audi early in my talk, and then later asked someone in the audience who was about to start car shopping to name some brands – Audi was not one of them. Sure, he may have heard of Audi – I’m sure he has – but the brand had not filtered into his top-of-mind consideration set for a variety of reasons. My “mention” provided exposure to the audience at IMS, but it didn’t necessarily provide awareness on anything more than a superficial level. Exposure is not awareness.

When we measure brand mentions, we are collecting a base metric that could be used in a variety of helpful ways, and may in fact serve as the core metric for some vital measures. By itself, however, the meaning of a brand mention is nebulous at best. Yet (and I do the same thing here, admittedly), when we see our brand mentions double or even triple from period to period, we feel good. We know there is something positive about increased mentions, but if pressed, we really can’t put our finger on the tangible benefits of these mentions. We have a subjective view of an apparently objective number. In short, we have been seduced by the illusion of accountability that these metrics provide.

Yet, determining the linkage between brand mentions and awareness isn’t a black box mystery (and yes, I say this a lot). I can ask a cohort of potential customers to name brands of golf clubs they are considering and rank them by some category I care about. Then I can engineer some social media activities designed to goose mentions of my brand of club, and afterwards ask that same cohort to repeat the exercise. There will or will not be a spike in awareness, and that spike will or will not be correlated with a concomitant spike in mentions. At the conclusion of this process, you will know whether or not increased social media mentions have benefits for your brand, and you’ll know how to process that data in the future.

Until you do this, however, you just have a number.

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About the Author

Tom Webster

Tom Webster is Vice President of Strategy for Edison Research, sole provider of U.S. National Election exit polling data for all major news networks. Webster has 20 years of experience in market and opinion research, with a particular emphasis on consumer behavior and the adoption of new media and technology. He is the principal author of a number of widely-cited research studies, including Twitter Usage In America, The Social Habit, and The Podcast Consumer Revealed, and is co-author of the Edison Research/Arbitron Internet and Multimedia Research Series, now in its 18th iteration. Reach him on Twitter at Webby2001, or on his blog at BrandSavant.