A challenge for social media marketers and communications professionals is coming to an agreement on transparent ways of measuring social media’s effects. That’s what led Kate Niederhoffer, founder of Knowable Research, to set up the panel “Measuring Social: The Inchworm & the Nightingale” at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival.

Inspired by a plot twist in a children’s story from the 1970s (where an inchworm escapes from a nightingale by offering to measure the bird’s song — from a distance), Niederhoffer brought together two knowledgeable figures from the worlds of social psychology and social media. The panel featured Dr. Sam Gosling, a social scientist and professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and Ken Cho, chief strategy officer and co-founder of Spredfast. Through a conversational approach touching on each person’s area of expertise, the three panelists explored ways in which social media efforts can be measured, including whether utilizing the same approach used by social scientists can be beneficial and if introducing some sort of standardization might be a much needed next step for the industry.

Niederhoffer identified two challenges in measuring and analyzing social media data.

  1. There are no standard terms. For example, one brand’s “influencer” is another’s “advocate” or “evangelist.”
  2. Data vary from one set to the next. Or, in the case of marketers, data vary from one vendor to the next.

Gosling has deep knowledge of social psychology and shared his experiences in measuring complex, abstract concepts in different and unconventional ways — which might be an interesting parallel for marketers seeking answers on how to measure social media conversations and tie-in the analysis to broader business goals.

Gosling recalled his experience studying human personality and how — just 30 years ago — there were no parameters for researchers as they explored concepts such as introversion or aggression. But over time, standards and taxonomy were established that allowed social scientists across the board to measure and analyze specific behaviors, which led to increased understanding of what makes a person tick.

All this background led to the big question of the day: How do we take social media chatter and make sense of it?

Cho shared his company’s three-pronged approach to measuring social activity: reach, activity and engagement. Each concept is pretty simple.

  • “Reach” refers to the number of people who see a post.
  • “Activity” refers to the number of posts and amount of activity on any given network.
  • “Engagement” refers to any action taken around your post (likes, shares, retweets, etc.).

An analysis of these three data sets drives recommendations for his clients, which can sometimes lead to changing their content.

Gosling shared how he looks at something he wants to measure through an experiment.

  1. Intuition: Where do you start? What is your initial hypothesis?
  2. Criteria: What will you be measuring? How do you define it?
  3. Analysis: How do you know the data is “good?” What is considered “high” or “low”?

The above would be used to drive a scientific experiment for Gosling; for marketers, our version of an experiment is a campaign. And a key aspect of all this is something marketers have always done — A/B testing. Trying out variations to different elements of a campaign can not only show what works and what doesn’t, but oftentimes highlights concepts that might not have been previously considered.

The panelists emphasized two elements to consider when looking at information you collect.

  1. How a given campaign’s data look over time.
  2. How that data connect with other pieces of information.

On the psychology side, the measurement of a person’s aggressive tendencies could somehow relate to that person’s level of introversion. For marketers, this could translate to how the life cycle of a particular tweet connects with a customer’s affinity for the brand.

The panel ended with an informal poll. The panelists asked whether the audience thinks we need standards for social media measurement. Almost everyone in the audience full of marketers said yes.

While these standards may not currently exist — after all, the “science” of social media may have roots in social psychology but our digital relationships with each other and brands is still being studied — this conversation between science and marketing helped highlight the need for them. Just as the inchworm used a clever tactic to come up with an answer for the nightingale — i.e., framing the discussion in a clever, unexpected way — perhaps we can approach our challenge similarly.

Bilal Kaiser works in digital and social media marketing at an entertainment company. This was his first SXSW, and his feet will never be the same. You can follow him on Twitter @bka1ser.

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