Limitations of the Twitterverse–what’s needed is what will surely come

Most consumer companies have by now embraced social media as an important, if mysterious, part of their integrated communications aimed at building awareness and opening the door for positive consideration. But is it working?

Social media is all about conversations, not about shouting at the marketplace like traditional advertising. We want to prompt interest and to participate gently in conversations involving our products and brands.  So when we are looking to gauge the relative effectiveness of a social media campaign, it shouldn’t be just about counting followers and the number of times we tweeted a message. It should be about counting engaged followers and in listening to what they have to say about us and to us. This will require both a change in how we use social media and an evolution in social media itself.

First, the listening part: Clearly we need to devote the resources to read and quickly respond to tweets and messages directed to us through our social media accounts. And we should, of course, be paying attention to key words that indicate conversations involving our brand or company or idea. (Listen always; join in a conversation as appropriate.)  But we also can glean a lot about the changing external environment shaping the resonance of our brand or proposition by listening for cultural trends. See Sam Ford’s informative post in Fast Times:  ”5 Ways of Listening to Culture That Will Change Your Business.”

Second, the counting part: To make sense of the raw data, we want to count not the number of our followers but the number who actually saw and read our post. This is exactly analogous to mass media–raw circulation numbers don’t provide an accurate number of those who actually read the story about our company or product.

We shouldn’t delude ourselves with inflated follower totals. A service called Fake Follower Check attempts to quantify bot-generated fake followers, as well as real but inactive followers. “It’s not perfect, though — it only takes a sample of your followers and it relies on educated guesses about their status,” says Jeff Sonderman at Poynter. (Using this service, I’ve ascertained that 84% of Force for Good’s Twitter followers are “good,” 10 percent are “inactive” and 6% are “fake.” I suppose that’s relatively reassuring, but what else does it tell me?)

What we really want to get at is the number of engaged followers. Twitter’s advertisers have access to an analytics service that tracks the number of clicks, mentions and retweets generated by each tweet and for key words (like your brand name). These numbers provide more meaningful insight into the level of external engagement around your brand, company or idea. But it still doesn’t provide much insight into what those people are actually thinking and feeling. Anything generating real conversation is likely to have haters as well as likers (and perhaps some lovers). If all you  care about it creating awareness (what I call “the Mae West School of PR“), then counting haters the same as supporters is just fine. But in most cases, understanding some dimension of favorability is important.

Most social media, including Facebook and LinkedIn, count the number of people who “like” a certain post or topic. It’s a start, but not really very useful. Can’t we do better?

NEXT POST: Beyond “Likes”: How social media will surely evolve to become more useful in revealing mass audience attitudes.

- Jon Harmon

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