Conversation Quotient

NEW YORK What’s a friend worth? It’s the question marketers are asking more and more as they plow into social media in the hopes of finding new customers in welcoming environments while going beyond simple messaging to the fuzzy notion of “engagement.”

But with the rapid growth of social media has come the challenge of measuring the new ways consumers are interacting with and sharing advertisers’ content and brands. In many cases, the biggest difficulty is not just figuring out what to measure but what to ignore — and how to square the need for metrics-driven accountability with the more qualitative feedback endemic to conversation-based channels.

The pressure to justify whether these stabs at so-called “conversational marketing” are paying off against business goals is increasing. Yet the immaturity of the space means few accepted definitions of success, which means many programs are judged more qualitatively, experts said.

“It’s still in its infancy,” said Max Kalehoff, vp, marketing for Clickable, a search marketing software company. “Marketers are trying to bridge the divide of what the metrics mean and then put them into action.”

Social media publishers like MySpace and Facebook are in something of a pickle. While users spend tons of time on their sites, many question the effectiveness of their ads there — at least using traditional online metrics, particularly clicks.

A Google executive admitted as much earlier this year, saying the company was finding it hard to run effective ads in social media. Google signed a deal in August 2006 to run search and contextual ads on MySpace. Beyond direct response metrics, many agency executives say an environment like MySpace or Facebook isn’t ideal for building brand awareness using regular banner ads because, despite all the time users spend on these sites, they tend to be there to socialize with friends. The vast amount of applications, music players, wallpaper and other doodads tends to distract their attention from the ads relegated to the page’s periphery.

Heidi Browning, svp of client solutions at Fox Interactive Media and a former executive at Organic, has heard it all before. She laments these “myths,” which she believes miss the extra oomph social media gives brands. “We’ve taken a step backwards with people talking about click-through rates,” she said, noting a recent comScore-Starcom study that found frequent ad clickers aren’t the best customers.

Instead, MySpace is trying to quantify the extra value advertisers get from campaigns that combine traditional banner ads with community pages that include downloadable content that can spread virally through the site. In its first effort at this with Carat last April, it found that more than half the value of MySpace campaigns comes from letting users download wallpaper, embed videos and add brands as their friends — endorsements that tend to outweigh the effect on consumers from standard ad messaging.

“That was the power of that environment,” Brian Mathena, group director at Carat in Los Angeles, said.

Instead of only measuring ad exposures and clicks, MySpace is gathering data on visits to community pages, time spent there, whether visitors watched a video or embedded a piece of content in their page. What’s more, it is then tracking the pass-along rate for pieces of portable content, currently to one degree but soon beyond that. It is also tracking demographic and psychographic information for “friends” a brand has accrued.

In many ways, these metrics are more common to site analytics than ad campaign reports. That only makes sense because the true power of social media lies in its ability to forge long-term relationships with consumers, something that is more akin to CRM than GRPs. But Browning insists these metrics are merely the cherry on top of the sundae, since regular ads in social media should be measured based on the same metrics used for portal campaigns.

“You’re getting incremental value on your media,” she said. “The industry needs to get back to the traditional metrics in terms of awareness and purchase intent. At the core, it’s these brand metrics.”

This risks selling social environment short, argues Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, an independent digital shop. His problem is that an environment like MySpace and other places have a predicament: Social media is not a short-term play like ad campaigns that launch and nearly immediately begin losing value. On the contrary, a well-executed social media campaign reverses this trend, increasing its worth as time elapses and communities grow. Measuring efforts against short-term campaign objectives ignores this, he said. “They’re looking at the standard [media] efficiency metrics, and I don’t think they apply here,” he said.

The other risk is that in the zeal to track marketers and agencies will lose sight of the need to trust that getting closer to customers is a worthy goal in and of itself, rather than get lost in assigning value to every interaction they can possibly track. “If you try to get too granular, you’ll open up a can of worms,” said Scott Shamberg, vp of e-marketing at Critical Mass, an Omnicom Group-backed shop that works on social media campaigns for clients like Mercedes. “If you want to assign a lifetime value, social media is probably the wrong place.”

Instead of shoehorning social media into “old media” metrics, there’s the need to loosen the criteria, Schafer said. Yes, count up clicks, visits, pass-alongs and other data, but leave room for more qualitative gauges that may not fit neatly into a spreadsheet.

Social media, he said, is like figuring out if you have a good marriage: Quantitative measurements will only get you so far. “You can’t assign a number to that,” he said.

Deep Focus started a community site in the fall for HBO’s The Flight of the Conchords. To measure the success of the effort, Deep Focus went beyond standard microsite measurements like visits and time spent to include social elements like how many times the videos were shared and increases in blog buzz. Yet the site is an organic community that needs more than “raw data” to gauge its health, he argued.

So the shop is adding what Schafer called “cause-and-effect” measurements. One key metric from the effort: T-shirts. The community began asking for show merchandise. Deep Focus responded by designing downloadable decals, the most popular of which became the show’s official T-shirt.

“We’re not creating a standard of measurement,” he said. “It’s a dynamic measurement. It’s measuring a dynamic.”

Beyond measuring ads, the growth of social media has created the biggest, most unorganized focus group imaginable for companies. Just a few years ago, the idea of monitoring blogs for conversations was cutting edge; now companies are faced with conversations that bounce from blogs to message boards to social networks to YouTube videos to “micro-blogging” services like Twitter. The wealth of raw opinions, though, comes at a price: it’s hard to make out what’s important and how it should be used.

“Social media measurement is like radar,” said Pete Blackshaw, CMO of Nielsen BuzzMetrics (which, like Adweek, is a unit of the Nielsen Co.) “You can’t fly a plane without radar. The question is how much radar do you need.”

The challenge is conversations that cut across organizational silos. A single data set of customer feedback can apply to the marketing department wanting to know if its messages resulted in increased share of voice versus its competitors; customer service eager to know of problems before they ignite a firestorm; and product management in search of insights into unmet customer needs.

No one set of metrics can apply to such a diverse set of constituencies, notes Jim Nail, chief marketing and strategy officer at TNS Media Intelligence/Cymfony, another buzz monitor. And even as social media has grown, there’s no guarantee the measurements will reflect the overall consumer base, which is typically less technically inclined and often less affluent. “The big issue is do any of these metrics relate to the real world?” he said. “Is your share of voice in social media a good proxy for the real world?”

At this point, he said, “it’s just not proven.” That makes it hard to compare data from social media with other measures, said Marcel Lebrun, CEO of Radian6, a social media tracking firm. “The online ad world has page views, impressions and clicks,” he said. “That kind of thing doesn’t exist yet” in social media.

For that reason, monitoring services are including qualitative metrics in the form of actual consumer feedback. BuzzMetrics frequently includes this in reports to illustrate trends. Such verbatim feedback can be just as valuable as a set of data, Blackshaw said. “One juicy comment from a consumer that illustrates an unmet need may be enough to jump-start an idea,” he said.

The key to measuring both social media and ad campaigns seems to lie in not forgetting what makes it distinctive: conversations. Sentiment can be hard to boil down to a set of numbers, Lebrun warned: “You can’t just come up with a secret formula.”