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"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."