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Conversation Quotient

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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.

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