Measuring social media success: once again, quality beats quantity

Yesterday, I said “[m]easuring social media success by sheer number of ‘likes’/’friends’/’followers’ is dangerous and often misleading.” Why do I believe this? And what units of measurement do I recommend instead?

Let’s start with the problems that occur when you equate success with the size of your community. First, such targets are usually arbitrary round numbers you’ve chosen based on the current size of your community, or perhaps that of a competitor or another business you hope to match. Rarely are they well thought out milestones that reflect the way true growth occurs (the ways in which, for example, it’s often influenced by offline activity.)

More importantly, though, a “bigger is better” approach leads you to encourage everyone to “like” your page, regardless of their relevance to the brand. (You may empathize if you’ve ever found yourself typing a desperate email to friends that says: “Please help! We promised our client/boss we’d have XXX ‘likes’ by the end of the month! You don’t have to do anything other than ‘like’ our page, just this one time!”) Then, when you reach this arbitrary goal, you delude yourself into thinking it’s worth celebrating. Meanwhile, all those people who “like” you are elsewhere, never to return to your page again.

So what’s a better approach? Using Facebook as an example, I’d focus on three numbers:

1. The number of wall posts originated by you (the brand). Aim for 1-3 per day, depending on what your product/service is, whether your business is seasonal, and–most important–what’s right for your audience (overtly promotional content, for example, should represent a very small percentage of your posts). By focusing on this number, you measure behavior that’s well within your control, and you’ll encourage the development of a consistent, sustainable message over time. Focusing on this number is a little like starting a weight loss program and measuring success by the number of days each week that you get to the gym. It’s designed to encourage the activity most likely to change the number on the scale, instead of just focusing on the number on the scale itself.

2. The number of responses these posts generate. Is your audience responding to your wall posts? If so, you should see “likes” and comments on these posts. This is an excellent measurement of your audience’s engagement, because it’s better to have a small group eager to continue the conversation instead of large group that ignores most of what you have to say. In fact, if no one engages with your content, you may not have much of an audience at all, regardless of how big your community is.

3. The number of posts initiated by the audience. This is the most telling number of all. Have you created a community where the audience is so engaged that they start conversations with no prompting from you? Are they asking questions? Even better, are they asking questions of their fellow community members? If this happens frequently, then you have a successful page, regardless of how many “likes” you have. And it’s a community that will grow because the audience will spread the word for you, connecting you to their network because they’re interested participants, not just passive observers.

There’s a little known secret about successful online communities: the more engaged your community is, the less talking you need to do. (Just one example: go to and count how many wall posts the brand initiates in any given recent week. Then count how many the audience initiates.) That means you want to get to a place where you’re move of a convener of conversations than the leader of them. It takes a lot of work to get there, but it’s well worth the effort.

No single number tells the whole story, so don’t ignore your number of likes, fans, or followers altogether. But if that’s all you’re measuring, you might want to reconsider your priorities. It might be tempting to brag about how many friends you have–and it’s a hell of a lot easier to measure–but it’s a lot more satisfying, and ultimately more useful, to focus instead on the depth of those relationships. It’s just another example of bigger not always being better, and quality beating quantity.

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One Response to Measuring social media success: once again, quality beats quantity

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