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The Big Social Media Error: Are We Chasing The Wrong Metrics?

Published: November 13, 2012

Author: Molly Shotwell

Jeff Ferguson, speaking-circuit regular and one of PPC Hero’s “Top 25 Most Influential PPC Experts,” is the CEO and Lead Consultant of Fang Digital Marketing. In his 17 years of marketing, Jeff has led the online efforts for companies such as Hilton Hotels, Kimberly-Clark, Napster, and Local.com. Jeff has volunteered for the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) on both the national and regional levels and serves as a board member of the L.A. chapter.

moneyball metrics
Likes, huh? Talk to me about OPS. And start Hatteberg.

Social media metrics are a lot like baseball statistics. There are a ton of statistics tracked during a given baseball game, but few of them tell the real story of a player’s or a team’s performance. Like baseball, there are many social media metrics wandering about, but few tell the real story of how well your social media marketing is doing for your company.
I’ve always been a fan of baseball, but more for it’s social aspects than for a real appreciation of the game. I was never really into keeping track of the players’ abilities (or names, even), but that changed after I read the book Moneyball.
I’m a numbers guy – specifically, an advertising numbers guy – and Moneyball is really about how a numbers guy, Bill James, applied his love of numbers to his love of baseball. When Bill James first started writing about baseball, there were a ton of people who managed baseball teams and thought he was outside of his mind. The baseball crowd thought this because Bill James told them that the statistics they were tracking and using to decide the fate of their players’ careers was fundamentally flawed.
One good example was that of the “error” as a measure of a player’s fielding performance. “What is an error?” Bill James wrote in his 1977 Baseball Abstract. “It is, without exception, the only major statistic in sports which is a record of what an observer thinks should have been accomplished. But the fact of a baseball error is that no play has been made but that the scorer thinks it should have. It is, uniquely, a record of opinions.”
As it was, the concept of the error in baseball was a leftover from the early days of the game, and in in this modern age of the professional baseball player, it had outlived its usefulness. According to James, “you have to do something right to get an error; even if the ball is hit right at you, then you were standing in the right place to begin with.”
Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, explained why this was a problem: “The statistics were not merely inadequate; they lied. And the lies they told led the people who ran major league baseball teams to misjudge their players, and mismanage their games.”
Social media, and to a larger extent, internet marketing in general, is a fan of creating metrics that sounds a lot like baseball’s “error” statistic. I speak specifically of the Facebook “like” and the Twitter “follower.” You can’t blame social media, really; internet marketing got its start with a wholly useless metric, the “hit,” which I occasionally still hear people who should know better use today. We tracked hits in the early days of internet marketing, not so much because it was the right thing to do, but because we could track it at all. We’re tracking likes and followers today for the very same reason.
Just like baseball’s error statistic, social media’s like and follower metrics are causing social media managers to misjudge and mismanage their campaigns. While it doesn’t surprise me that we’re yet again following another useless metric, the fact that social media managers haven’t already figured out its lack of uselessness leaves me agog.
Given the age of these social media metrics, one would think that the social media managers of the world have grown tired of questions such as, “But what does five thousand likes do for my bottom line?” from their bosses. Furthermore, the collection of social media gurus who have figured out that likes and followers are a sham are instead asking for even more new metrics to use rather than asking whether we already have the metrics we need to judge the success of our campaigns.
Next month, at the AllFacebook Marketing Conference in New York, I will be speaking on a session entitled, “The Great Lie of the ‘New’ Social Media Metrics,” where I will take a hard look at the lie that is the “like” and the “follower” and how the obsession over their growth is leading social media managers down the wrong path. Hopefully, without sounding like an old man complaining that nobody writes letters anymore, I will float the idea that we are following the wrong metrics and that the metrics we need have been there all along.
The measure of success of a campaign doesn’t change with the media you’re using. If you’re in the business of selling widgets, your business isn’t a success for one media channel because it increased sales and in another because you have more social media followers. The success of any given advertising campaign will always be measured by how well it drove the KPIs of your business.
Does this mean that likes and followers don’t have a place in that equation? Of course not; however, we have to remember that their existence isn’t the end game, but part of a greater collection of metrics that may tell us the success of certain aspects of a given campaign. Just like trying to explain to the owner of a baseball club that the season was a success because your defense had the lowest amount of errors in the league, trying to explain to your boss that your social media campaigns were a success because you generated a pile of likes will get you sent down to the minors.
I know, trust me, I know; it’s exciting to see those likes and followers climb the charts, just like it’s exciting to watch somebody try and steal second base. However, as is said in the movie version of Moneyball, “I pay you to get on first, not get thrown out at second.” Remember to focus on what you’re paid to do as a social media manager, not what the fans like to watch you try to do.
Jeff Ferguson
– Jeff Ferguson

25 E Washington Street
Suite 420

Chicago, IL 60602(650) 539-4124


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