Why Engagement DOES Matter As A Social Media Metric
Engagement metrics may not be the best gauges of social media effectiveness, but columnist Mark Traphagen says disregarding this data may result in the loss of valuable information.
In the world of social media marketing metrics, the doctors are giving out new diagnoses — and the news isn’t good for some of the patients.
For example, the follower count’s rosy cheeks and cheerful demeanor apparently were hiding rampant disease. The new diagnosis: Follower counts in and of themselves are poor indicators of social media effectiveness.
And now, another star patient is being called in for a second opinion: engagement metrics.
One “doctor” to speak out and not sugarcoat the news is journalist Matt Kapko in his post, “Social Media Engagement Is Dead.”
Of course, Kapko doesn’t really think engagement is dead. His post makes clear he actually believes that social media engagement as a useful metric of effectiveness is dead. I think he’s right on one level, but also misses the larger and more important story that engagement numbers can tell.
How Much Fail Is There In Social Engagement Metrics?
Let me start by agreeing with Matt in that focusing on engagement metrics as an end in themselves indeed provides little value. Just as with big follower numbers, getting lots of likes and retweets and +1s and reblogs is no indication that your social media campaigns are providing real value to your business.
However, does it follow that such metrics are complete failures — without value — that tell businesses nothing useful?
Kapko cites two reports that are extremely critical of the utility of engagement metrics.
Social Engagement Doesn’t Equate With Direct Sales Or Loyalty
In a Forrester Research blog post, analyst Nate Elliott remarks, “We’ve spoken with scores of social vendors who measure engagement, and none has proven if — or how strongly — engagement correlates to business success metrics like loyalty or sales.”
Unfortunately, Elliott gives us no further details about the content of those conversations with “social vendors.” For example, I’d want to know for what sort of correlation where they looking? If it was direct sales (i.e., someone sees a social media post, clicks through, and immediately buys), I dealt with that as a fallacious expectation for social media marketing in my previous Marketing Land column.
I will admit that “loyalty” is probably impossible to measure via social media since we can’t track individual customers in relationships to their individual social accounts and activities.
In a fascinating contrast to Elliott’s conclusions, though, is a study by Socialbakers which shows that the amount of social interactions on a brand’s social media posts correlates with the number of visits to the brand’s website. In other words, when social interactions are high, visits to the corresponding websites tend to go up as well. It appears that when social media users are most engaged with a brand, they are also more likely to visit the brand’s site.
Now, that’s a different value from what the Forrester research measured, but as I will argue below, one not unrelated to business goals such as sales and customer retention.
Social Engagement May Not Predict Customer Behavior
Kapko also cites a Vision Critical report comparing the shopping habits of “social media enthusiasts” with those of “regular customers” of three major brands. The report states that enthusiasts account for 85% of social media updates, but they make up only 29% of the audience of the studied brands.
Furthermore, they found that the shopping habits of the enthusiasts differed markedly from those they designated as “dabblers” and “lurkers.”
Vision Critical concluded that businesses will get a skewed view of customer buying habits if they rely on social metrics.
While I think there is valuable information in the report, I have some critiques:
- Enthusiastic About What? You have to dig deep in the report to find out that by “social media updates,” the study was not looking at direct engagements with the social content of the brands, but rather all of the social activities of the studied users. In other words, the “enthusiasts” were not brand enthusiasts (necessarily) but social media enthusiasts. Nowhere did the study evaluate people in terms of their engagement with the brands themselves. So this isn’t actually an engagement metrics study!
- Free Samples, Anyone? The report also ignores the possible value of a representative sample. Sure not all your social media followers will engage with your brand, but any statistician or pollster will tell you that you don’t need everyone, just a good enough sample. And since the study showed that the “enthusiasts” actually purchase more and spend more, why not analyze them as a sampling of your best customers? (Aren’t those the ones you most want to please?)
- Apples & Oranges. This study was limited to evaluating purchasing patterns of various social media users. It did not attempt to correlate to any other possible value they might have to the brand.
Summing up this section, I think the reports linked by Kapko do tell us, to some extent, what social media engagement is not good for in terms of real business goals. However, it is questionable whether those studies were actually reporting on correlations directly from actual engagements.
Furthermore, such arguments can at best support that engagement metrics are not valuable for some objectives. However, it does not follow therefore that they have no value at all.
So What Are Social Engagement Metrics Good For?
Despite the shortcomings in some aspects of the studies I mentioned above, I remain in agreement that social media engagement numbers have little to no value as direct indicators of important business goals such as sales and customer loyalty.
Does that mean that engagement metrics are “dead” as Matt Kupko and others allege? Are they without any value and safe to ignore?
My evaluation is that while it is a mistake to make engagement the focus of a business’s evaluation of social media effectiveness, such metrics do have important stories to tell, and a brand ignores them at the peril of significant loss of information.
While engagement metrics may not be the best predictors of many business goals, at this point they are our most complete social media metric. So instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I think it’s better to think seriously about what engagement metrics can tell us rather than what they don’t.
So what are some valuable uses of social media engagement metrics?
1. Evaluating Content Or Campaign Effectiveness
Sure, we ultimately want any business social media campaign to result in more business, but there are always steps along the journey to that goal. If your business is investing in content and social marketing, one of the first things you want to know is whether anyone cares about your content and social posts.
Engagement Can Be A First Clue. Gauge what content and which types of social media posts most resonate with your audience. At a simplistic (but still useful first-glance) level, content or posts getting more engagement are probably best hitting the mark with your audience. Of course, you shouldn’t stop there.
Drill Down Further On Your Most Popular Content. Try to identify common patterns and also take a look at which followers are engaging most with your posts. That’s useful not only for identifying influencers and chief fans, but for analysis of the type of person for whom your content “clicks.”
If you want to go further in your content analysis, you might want to create something like Moz’s One Metric. Their One Metric is a formula that combines data from Google Analytics (overall traffic to the page), on-page engagement (number of comments and thumbs-ups), and social shares into one score.
Evaluate The Type Of Reengagement. This is also important, as not all engagement is created equal. One-click engagements such as a Facebook Like or a Google+ +1 probably don’t do much to increase the reach of a post. That’s especially true on Facebook now, although a Google+ +1 actually can increase the reach of a post under the right circumstances.
A reshare or retweet of a post is a more important engagement, as it potentially puts your post in front of many more eyeballs.
Of course, engagement numbers can also be a first step in evaluating which social networks are worth more or less of your time.
The point here is to use the levels of engagement with your social media posts as a first clue toward what is working with your audience, then dig deeper.
2. Indirect SEO Value
The Socialbakers study cited above is not alone in finding a strong correlation between levels of social engagement and traffic driven to a site. Various reports such as the extensive Searchmetrics Search Ranking Factors study show sites whose content has high levels of social engagement also tend to have higher levels of organic traffic.
With the old adage that “correlation does not mean causation” in mind, we would be right to be cautious in concluding that high social engagement causes better organic search results. In fact, it is highly unlikely that it does.
So why the consistent correlation? There are at least two likely causes:
- Sites that drive more social engagement are sites that have the kind of content that is more likely to earn signals that we know affect SEO, such as links.
- Higher social engagement can drive larger exposure for your content, leading to more discovery by valuable, relevant sites that may link to it.
It’s the latter cause that is most important to us in this discussion. If you’re looking to earn more links for your content to increase search rankings, increased exposure of your content through social media is one means.
So watch your analytics to see if rising social reach correlates with rising organic search traffic for your site. If it does, then drill deeper to find out which networks are best corresponding to that increase. If your social engagement is not matching up with organic search growth, then it may be an indicator that your social efforts are not correctly targeted.
3. Indirect Sales & Lead Value
As I mentioned above, I won’t disagree with the assertion that social media is poor at driving direct sales. However, that doesn’t mean that it has no effect on sales (or on other business goals, such as lead and prospect generation).
Have another look at that Socialbakers graph above. I hear similar results from many business site owners, that as social media engagement rises so does overall traffic to their sites. At Stone Temple Consulting, we see that correlation consistently. Below is an overlay of our traffic from social channels compared to overall site traffic during a period of steady growth of the latter. (The green line is social traffic; the blue line overall traffic.)
As you can see, social traffic rose steadily (except for one month) in correspondence with our overall traffic. During that time, we also saw a corresponding rise in nearly all of our social engagement metrics.
The point here is not about causation, but rather that social engagement levels can be one (among many) indicators of the health of a site and its content.
But what about the indirect effect on sales and leads I mentioned? Obviously social can drive significant traffic to your site. Once that traffic arrives, it is the job of your site to convert it, just as it is with traffic driven to your site from any other source.
While it is probably rare that someone sees a single tweet or Facebook post, clicks through to your site, and then immediately makes a purchase or fills out a lead form, once they are on your site, the following questions come into play:
- Is your content helpful, relevant to why they clicked the social media link, and of high enough quality that the visitor might want to see more, either on that visit or in the future? In other words, what is your landing page doing to convert them from visitor to potential fan?
- Do you have appropriate, well-tested and optimized opportunities for the visitor to convert in whatever way fits your goals?
In other words it is not the job of social media to sell. That’s the job of your site. Social media’s job is to get people to the location where potential conversion happens and to move them along on their journey toward conversion.
How does all that relate to social engagement metrics? Evaluate your engagement on various social networks in correspondence to how well those networks are doing at driving traffic to your site. If a network has high engagement but drives little traffic, either reevaluate your presence there or evaluate how you can better target your audience on that network.
If engagement metrics are the primary or only way you are evaluating your social media effectiveness, then you are indeed doing it wrong.
However, if you disregard engagement numbers completely, you may be missing out on valuable information. The smart marketer never relies on any one metric, but takes into consideration the interplay of many different factors.
What other values do you see in social engagement metrics? Let us know in the comments!