The REAL point of Measurement

Mark Shaefer has a nice post about a recent “social media measurement smackdown” he participated in during a social media conference. He was pushing back against a prevailing notion that you can’t measure social media. He’s heard nice sound bites like “What’s the ROI of your mother,” or “You can’t measure the ROI of your receptionist…” He doesn’t buy it. He argues strongly in his post for the importance of measurement, and I agree with a lot of what he says.

But there’s a part of this debate that really bugs me. I don’t think the relevant question is to measure or not measure. Mark’s first point is that you need to measure social media ROI because eventually when budgets get tight, you’ll need a good argument for justifying your work in that area (agree). He then argues that there IS a cost to these “free” social media initiatives–which could total hundreds of thousands of dollars when you count all the staff time (agree). He then argues that you need to measure simply to know if you’re making progress (okay). And his last point is that there is not excuse to NOT measure:

I’m not advocating that every social media effort has a demonstrable ROI. I’m a practical guy. It may be cost-prohibitive or even impossible to determine the specific ROI of your efforts. Sometimes you need to look at qualitative tools for social media measurement. But there is no excuse for not tracking key measures that contribute to your company’s goals.

So here’s what bugs me: that last line. “Tracking key measures that contribute to your company’s goals.” That implies a cause-effect relationship between what you’re measuring and the accomplishment of goals. THAT is the missing piece in this conversation. I agree with Mark that we need to measure. Intuition is not enough. But the point of measurement is not to measure–it’s ultimately to make sure what you’re doing contributes to success, right? So where is the part of the measurement process where we connect what we’re measuring to the goals? That, it seems to me, is the real hard work here, so why aren’t we talking about it?

The only reason you measure something, is because it helps you learn. After measuring it, you know more, you understand more deeply, you have some new insight, maybe even you reach a new conclusion. But it’s only in the simplest of situations that a single measurement leads to a conclusion. Most measurement simply provides “data” that we use in our learning process, but we must combine those with all sorts of other data, usually through some form of ongoing conversation, before we reach any conclusions. That’s learning. In complex systems, data are critically important–yet rarely tell the whole story.  So the question remains unanswered: what is our process for learning about our social media ROI?

Should you engage in social media? Probably. Should you measure? Yes. But don’t fall into the trap that measurement is the only part of learning that you need to be working on. Converting those metrics into learning that matters is hard work, and I think is a weak link in much of our management. We’ve been giving lip service to “learning organizations” for decades, but I don’t think we’ve figured it out. In Humanize, the fourth (and most difficult) human element we talk about is being courageous. That means behavior that takes personal development seriously, process and structures that support experimentation, and (drum roll) a culture that finally takes learning to heart.

Social media is illuminating some important realities for us, specifically that our systems are more organic and decentralized than we’re used to. This makes BOTH the measurement and the learning more difficult–and more important.

Image credit.


  1. 21.02.2012 at 10:23 am

    Good post.

    I also want to throw in something else: Measurement doesn’t just tell you what works. It tells you what doesn’t, the degree to which it does (or doesn’t), and how quickly. An intelligent measurement methodology across a company will for example tell me that during a sales event awareness campaign, Facebook contributed 30% of a 180% increase in foot traffic to brick and mortar stores over the course of a weekend. It will also tell me that sales only increased 20% compared to other weekends, which doesn’t click with that 180% increase in foot traffic. That alerts me to the fact that something happened in those stores that didn’t meet customer expectations. Now begins the work of finding out what that is: Long check-out lines? High prices? Not enough fitting rooms?

    Measurement creates data. Data allows us to derive insights. insights empower us with the ability to make good strategic and tactical decisions. That’s all it is. How we measure, what we measure, when and why and how deep, that’s up to the business. You know you’re doing it right when your measurement practice answers your questions and helps you make sound decisions that pay off. You know you’re doing it wrong when you can’t make sense of the data or it just sits there in a report nobody looks at.

    ROI is just one tiny (albeit important) piece of that measurement process. If it matters, measure it (and measure it well). If it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. As long as you measure what matters and know why you are doing it, then you’re probably on the right track.