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Social media KPIs such as 'likes' and 'followers' are directional indicators at best, which really only matter if they lead to outcomes
Something I’m asked frequently at conferences and from marketers is what metrics they should be optimizing for and growing from their social media marketing.
They are generally looking for a prescriptive formula. And while there may be some common metrics B2B and B2C marketers strive for, I think the question highlights a deeper issue which must be addressed first: social media does not happen in a vacuum. It is not some sectioned off place from the rest of the world or our lives. Like a fish does not know it is swimming through water, social has become the invisible environment people live in online. The quaintest distinction people still hold in their minds is that the online world is “different” from the physical. This has not been true in many years, and no young person sees such a division as they have grown up digitally native. But you don’t even have to be a digital native to grasp the larger point: the internet has always been simply a reflection of our physical reality. When you view the events of the last 10 years in any sector or the political realm, and especially the pandemic it’s pretty clear how this concept has finally crystalized to a lot of people who didn’t quite grasp it prior. Of course there are still holdouts…
We must understand the above before you’ll ever get more complex concepts such as marketing attribution correct. But let’s keep this post really simple because the core concept here is not actually difficult to get right: your goals from your social efforts should be aligned with and contribute to your larger marketing/business objectives. So, in short if you read no further: social isn’t some alien place outside of your marketing or distinct from your users lives that isn’t held to the same level of importance or to different results of your other channels, even if the execution and details of work are different.
Sadly, despite social media no longer being new, our industry still has an unhealthy culture of chasing things like shares and engagement instead of actual outcomes that will affect their business. Many teams have social media managers who care more about “going viral” or creating edgy memes over actually building a reputation or (god forbid) making sales/conversions. And, that’s not to say more shares and engagement aren’t a good thing. They’re one of the magical parts about social: instant feedback. You know almost immediately if what you did resonated or fell flat. They also speak to your success creating content and experiences that resonate with people, but are always indicator KPIs: directionally useful for us to understand how we are doing nurturing our communities. Your marketing team should geek out over them. They should not be on page 1 of an update presented to executives, but in an appendix.
I just said this but now I want you to say it with me once more so it’s a mantra: shares and engagement of content are key performance indicators (KPIs) of success, not the goal in and of itself. I doubt most businesses participate in social with the explicit objective of generating more shares, but instead are hoping to use social to improve customer service, grow the brand reputation, raise awareness, connect with/nurture fans and ultimately, yes, impact their bottom line. This is why we exist in the first place as marketers.
Unless you are one of the rare people who actually work for a social media platform (who do have engagement as end goals) this is not your reason for being. Yet what I’ve seen in my experiences is that marketers start with a legitimate business goal, but along the line they get addicted to engagement – more KPIs, more followers, more shares, and lose sight of the whole reason for being involved. It ends up being a dragon chase situation.
So what is an outcome metric of social? Not shares, but instead a real world objective that is your desired return. It could be more organic inquiries, ecommerce sales, speaking opportunities, advertising revenue, PR, etc (pending on your business), but it is a tangible outcome you want your efforts to result in. It’s something that should be understood by your CEO in addition to your marketing team. No fancy jargon or platform metrics required. There shouldn’t have to be any detailed education to explain why this is good. Also as a note, social of course is not direct marketing, the ways you achieve bottom of funnel outcomes are very different than traditional advertising and require a thoughtful strategy and approach.
One caveat to end this post. I don’t want to downplay social shares and engagement. They act as a signal of social proof and can play a significant role in making your brand successful. But they are an organic byproduct of doing everything else right, not the goal.
So don’t stress too much about “going viral” like the infamous Oreo super bowl Tweet. Work instead to improve your marketing and communications strategies to fit the modern marketing mix, and I bet social KPIs take care of themselves. They will all grow as a proxy of product and marketing done right.