Social Media Measurement, Social Media Strategy, Top 10

5 Reasons Social Media Measurement is Making You Lie to Yourself

Social media measurement causes unsavory (and ineffective) marketing behavior because unlike the rest of our marketing key performance indicators, social media metrics are out there for anyone to see.

Was it a surprise last week when Presidential wannabe Newt Gingrich was (allegedly) busted for having 1.3 million followers on Twitter, most of which were bots and fake accounts? Not really. It may have raised an eyebrow that someone applying for the most important job in the world would (allegedly) stoop to fakery to boost follower counts. But despite some initial reluctance, politics has embraced the social media Egosystem as much or more than any other industry.

(Nice analysis on it from Ian Lurie over at Conversation Marketing)

Social Media Measurement 5 LiesBeing a former political consultant myself, this kerfuffle got me pondering about social media measurement and the bigger lessons of key performance indicators. I see five.

1. Visibility of Social Media Metrics Drives Behavior

How much do you think we’d be talking about twitter followers or Facebook likes if how many you have wasn’t attached to your public profile like a goiter?

If on every website you visited you saw a number in the corner that showed how many email newsletter subscribers they had, we’d be putting a lot more emphasis into our email programs. We care about twitter followers and Facebook likes disproportionately not because of the power of the medium, but because we keep score in public.

There was a time when there was a lot of news coverage of comparative website “hits” but largely that kind of “story” went away with the fortunate exit of hit counters pinned to the footer of your site. Everyone knows that data from Nielsen, Compete, Quantcast, Alexa and their ilk is only semi-accurate unless the site chooses to report actual numbers, so we’ve mostly accepted the fact that website traffic is a dull topic not worth our curiosity or bile.

2. Our Belief That Bigger is Better Makes It So

Every legitimate social media consultant in America will tell you that it’s not about how many twitter followers or Facebook likes you have, it’s what you do with them. (and good job by Kellye Crane and Mack Collier on that in the coverage of Newt-gate)

In terms of driving measurable behavior, conversions, revenue, loyalty and advocacy, etc. they are of course correct. Number of twitter followers doesn’t mean a thing, right? Wrong.

The reality is that social media measurement is a very public dick measuring competition, and we buy it hook, line, and sinker. Why would Newt not only (allegedly) pay to build a following that dwarfs the other candidates, but then have the audacity/stupidity to brag about the advantage?

Because it matters in the court of public perception. Twitter is used monthly by just 8% of Americans 12 or older, according to Tom Webster and Edison Research, yet the penetration rate amongst “thought leaders” “celebs” and “media” is damn near 100%, and that drives its role as an arbiter of popularity and fame.

We may not like it. We may not even choose to admit it. But it’s disingenuous to suggest that number of twitter followers has no impact on how you or your organization are viewed by the vox populi. It’s not a key performance indicator, it’s a key popularity indicator.

3. You’re Not Much Better Than Newt Yourself

Yes our fascination with the public nature of social media measurement causes some issues. But the bigger problem is that the whole system is a house of cards.

Guess what? While most of your Twitter followers are probably real people they probably don’t see your tweets, much less respond to them. It’s stunning how many marketers – even in major companies and agencies – don’t understand (or choose to ignore) the massive difference between twitter followers and actual twitter reach.

If you have 10,000 followers, do 10,000 people see your tweet? Absolutely not. Many of those people do not use Twitter any longer (abandonment rates have been reported to be as high as 50%), may not be logging on to Twitter today, may not be logging on at a time where your tweet shows up in their timeline, or may use Twitter as a “social telephone” paying attention primarily to @replies.

The reality is that we do not know how many impressions each Tweet generates. We can determine engagement rate via clicks and retweets (I use Convince & Convert sponsor Argyle Social for social communication because of their incredible metrics). But, we cannot determine impressions, because Twitter will not show them to us. Hmmm, I wonder why?

Think about it from an email perspective. Twitter followers is the number of subscribers you have. Twitter reach (impressions) is your open rate, and that’s not available.

A bunch of Newt’s followers are (allegedly) robots. But the net effect of a robot and an actual person that didn’t see your tweets is exactly the same.

4. Facebook Likes Is Just As Bogus

To their credit, Facebook at least shows us actual impressions in their Insights social media measurement console.

But the reality is that in our zeal to accumulate as many “likes” as possible for our fan page (largely comprised of people that already like us, so we’re putting forth extreme effort to preach to the converted), we mostly neglect to notice that a very small percentage of those fans see our carefully crafted status updates.

A report from Pagelever (fresh out of beta, and the best Facebook analytics package available, by far) studying 400 million fans found that just 7.49% of fans (on average) see the status updates from any particular brand. This is because of Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm that sanitizes your news feed based on you and your friends’ propensity to interact with status updates from each brand and person to whom you’re connected on the platform.

Using our email analogy then, we can say that on average (your results may vary), the “open rate” for Facebook is 7.49%, and the “click-through rate” (the interaction rate shown in Insights) mostly ranges from .25% to .9%. Much, much lower than even a middling email campaign.

I’m thinking you’d see a lot less crowing about your 50,000 Facebook likes if you had to report and talk about it using unsexy but true numbers: “3,750 active Facebook likes.”

5. Play Your Own Game

Despite the gold rush, social media is still a nascent industry. One symptom of immature markets is an overwhelming fear of doing it wrong. Nobody wants to lose their job as CMO of a major company because of some newfangled medium that didn’t exist five minutes ago.

This creates a culture of comparison, whereby instead of spending the requisite time and effort crafting a bespoke social media strategy that uniquely fits our company and its culture, we instead yearn to do it just like the other guys.

Share of voice. Comparisons of twitter followers, Facebook likes, and YouTube subscribers. An over reliance on case studies. Even social media competitor audits (and I do many of them). All of these are byproducts of our collective fear about playing our own game.

Should you learn from your competitors and other companies “doing it right” in social media? Sure, but don’t lie to yourself. Realize that the numbers we proudly toss around like silk sashes are often fictitious hair shirts. Proceed accordingly. And with caution.

Facebook Comments


  1. says

    Hi Jay very well written.

    I actually feel the problem isn’t measurement vs what we measure. The Facebook Impressions is a lie. 70% of my clients Fan Page is not seeing a post that no one has clicked Like or Commented on. I bet the 7.9% number is actually inflated.

    The problem is there is a lobby group against reality. people who give speeches, write books, VC’s, the networks themeslves, social media agencies (Likeable, Vitrue etc), Mashable everyone who is making a buck on the hype is going to reinforce the hype.

    If I ran social media for a big company and was paid well I would cherry pick the stuff that makes it look good and is working vs reality. The big problem is Social Media Marketing focused on sales is never going to work. Social Media for building small hyper communities to groom advocates works. To use it as partial customer service works. To use it for insights works. But most of the evangelists are focused on ‘social media will explode your business’ and that is the same BS sold investors.

    Here is a typical example of the lie Jay. In April 2010 Facebook had on their stats page the average person spent 55mins on their site per day. Then this winter is changed to 700bil minutes a month. When I did the math that turned out to be a 30% drop in time spent per user per dayl. Today it is now a 40% drop since April 2010. Why? Because they need to gloss reality. And the Mashables refuse to ever challenge this stuff. Of course if Social loses it’s luster Mashable loses money and readers right?

    It’s all fraud in my opinion.

    Cheers. BTW I have been blogging about this stuff for 2 years now so glad people are finally catching on.

    • says

      @HowieSPM Thanks Howie. Great comment. As I mentioned above, I don’t consider Mashable to be an objective source in this matter, the same way Industry Standard wasn’t objective in the late 90s. Indeed, this entire social media world feels like a movie I’ve already seen.

    • says

      @HowieSPM I recently began to think of social media as PR, not marketing at all. I don’t look at social media stats much anymore (although I do feel lonely if I don’t get many retweets of a post), because the simple fact is those numbers aren’t what’s bringing in clients. At least, not yet.

  2. UnMarketing says

    Amen as usual. I’ve always said social media is a crappy sales/marketing platform, it’s great for conversations that aren’t scalable. If people think newsletter open rates are bad, try a tweet!

    I have almost 100,000 followers, and on average if I send out a pic it get’s viewed 2000 times. Do the math.

    10,000 opt-ins to my blog newsletter are 10X more valuable than 10,000 social media opt-ins.

    • alanbr82 says

      @UnMarketing I don’t think social media is the best but certainly isn’t crappy. Like anything it how the tool is used and what the goals are. I would have never bought your book or known you the heck you are. So it can’t be half bad as a sales/marketing platform.

    • says

      @UnMarketing Like @alanbr82 , I don’t believe sales/marketing on social platforms to be entirely without merit if it falls within acceptable ranges for success vis-a-vis the goals you set. Brand awareness, event promotion, etc – all can be collectively called ‘marketing’.

      • says

        @jasonkonopinski@UnMarketing@alanbr82 As I said above, social media is perfectly fine to sell stuff to people who already know you (and to some degree, to their friends). It’s less effective – typically – as a mechanism to sell to people who don’t already know you, because social interactions are wholly opt-in.

  3. says

    As usual, you’ve perfectly articulated just how easily it is to get caught up in a numbers game. I disagree with @UnMarketing , though, that social platforms are crappy for sales and marketing in so far as the metrics for engagement are different.

    • says

      @jasonkonopinski@UnMarketing Social media is great for sales and marketing to audiences that ALREADY like you. Less good for sales and marketing to people who are not predisposed.

  4. says


    Loved the post. I’m a big fan of your advice to stop obsessing over ‘best practices’ and those who are ‘doing it right.’ I see so many ‘social media strategists’ flocking to Mashable on a daily basis searching for campaigns they can emulate for their customers. It’s about time everyone put their head down and got back to work and busted out some creative work of their own.

  5. JPWillCo says

    Great post! I agree about the numbers game and the huge number of junky accounts on social networks. If a prospect is looking for your product/service, your company must have a social media presence because it’s expected. But to measure success by the number of followers and likes and links alone is impossible.

    • says

      @JPWillCo Impossible it is. Yet it goes on every single day, and it’s fueled by the media reporting on number of followers and likes.

  6. DavidPylyp says

    Excellent Read!!! When you pass a car crash on the other side of the highway; we all look but does everyone comment? The number of likes on a page are meaningless if people “liked you” and never return to interact. Social Media is about engagement and creating a conversation that we hope leads to a relationship. Twitter and Facebook provide an opportunity to post hyperlinks to website landing pages. Relationships need to occur B2B and IRL.

    Thank you for a post that makes conversation!

    David Pylyp

    Accredited Senior Agent Toronto

    • says

      @DavidPylyp It’s so mysterious that everyone knows social media is about engagement, yet all we talk about are the raw numbers that have nothing whatsoever to do with engagement.

  7. learnit2earnit says

    Jay you hit the nail on the head with this article. I believe that if you are not professional online as you would be offline, you will have a difficult battle to success. It seems that more people are getting that there are those that want to ‘fake’ their way into your pocket book, BUT there are so many ways to check things out on the web, if you are a serious business, you best be sure you are transparent, professional and a real person!

    • says

      @learnit2earnit I’m not sure that most people know or even care whether this data is real. They just look at the number in the corner and believe in it. Sad, but it’s human nature.

  8. RockyWalls says

    Good post Jay, I hear a lot of people talk about this subject but not many people talk like this. Well said.

  9. says

    There’s a ton of truth here, Jay. Much to my dismay, I see much of the same talk and behavior on Google+, i.e. folks bragging about the volume at which they were added to Circles. It was disconcerting to say the least.

    • says

      @TedWeismann I see it too Ted. There appears to be a tie between being a social media a-lister, and propensity to be amazed by oneself. I can’t decide whether it’s a cause (all these people follow me, ergo I must be hot shit); or effect (I am a narcissist, ergo I promote myself more than a normal person would, which creates followers). Any guesses?

  10. DaveGallant says

    Great post Jay. At the same time, those case studies are what initially helps get prospective clients to “buy in” , allowing us to move further the line in developing a strategy. They also provide us with ideas when developing strategies. I absolutely agree though, we do have an over reliance on case studies, as well as that we need to be cautious on our faith in the numbers “Likes” and tweets.

  11. DaveGallant says

    Great post Jay. At the same time, those case studies are what initially helps get prospective clients to “buy in” , allowing us to move further down the line in developing a strategy. They also provide us with ideas when developing those strategies. I absolutely agree though, we do have an over reliance on case studies. As well, we do need to be cautious on our faith in the numbers “Likes” and tweets.

  12. says

    You hit it on the head @JayBaer. Twitter followers and Facebook likes are the most talked about metrics because they are public and universal. AND the easiest to “get” for higher ups and clients. I don’t know what that campaign does exactly, but hey, 100,000 likes sounds big and it is bigger than X competitor. WIN!It is a starting point. Our job is to push the conversation, to evolve a more mature metrics discussion with clients and bosses.

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  14. madison.bushell says

    Thanks, Jay. Can’t help but always resort to “Quality over Quantity” when it comes to Twitter and the likes. Have a great week!

  15. PJProductivity says

    OK, but what are WE supposed to do about bots following us? I don’t automate jack on any of my Twitter accounts. How can I control who follows me? Don’t get me wrong – I’m no Newt fan myself but this has always bugged me. Maybe there’s a tool out there I”m not aware of but it seems ridiculous to me to disparage the guy because bots were following him, unless he (or someone working for him) created those accounts for that purpose.

  16. Ann_Mulvany says

    Excellent article. Your culture of comparison comment really hits the nail on the head. Social media has become an arena of competition where the focus has shifted from having a meaningful conversation with your publics to keeping up with the Joneses. This change to quantity over quality is definitely reflected in the current standards of measurement.

  17. Neicolec says

    Terrific post, Jay. Thank you! You made the point I was trying to make in my post last week–but more more eloquently and without all the brou-ha-ha.

    Your point about the visibility of the numbers is such a good one! You’re right. If they weren’t so visible, we wouldn’t care. It’s interesting how the way you implement a product, the simple choice of showing numbers or not, can influence the behavior of vast numbers of people and industry marketing practices! Someone or a team chose to show those numbers, likely not foreseeing how it would change things.

    Eventually, though, people do catch on. These numbers may have less of an impact eventually, as people become aware of the bot and buying issue. I guess we can hope.

  18. says

    Jay, your thinking is right on and very well stated. Kudos and thanks. We are very much a “What’s the score” mentality. The numbers are quick and easy to read….and tout. When I was still a corporate employee, I was given the objective of ensuring that our Branded Merchandise effectively supported our image marketing efforts. However, all judgement was based on “bottom line $’s so image flew out the window. Too easy to see low numbers vs. high image.

    As to your cause or effect question in the comment below as to whether it’s “I have big #’s so I’m hot shit” OR “I’m a narcissist so I create large #’s” my answer would be YES!

  19. ann ehnert says

    Thank you for sharing this post. I believe each company needs to create a unique strategy that works for them within their specific industry and really try to figure out how they want to truly measure engagement or conversion. It’s important to not get hung up on the wrong numbers, both of your own efforts and competitors, and focus on quality not quantity – across the board. However, how do you begin to change public thought and the reality that everyone is keeping social score? It’s important to keep your efforts in check and continue to create thoughtful engagements for your target audience.



  20. KellyeCrane says

    This post makes many great points, but the thing I love best is that you call us all out. Even those of us who don’t obsess about numbers have to admit to looking at them from time to time. The “culture of comparison” can cause us to focus on a phantom reality, and that’s something to be very wary of. Thanks for the mention, BTW!

  21. says

    Ran similar thoughts on the ‘myth’ of the big numbers this morning. One thing I didn’t think about was the transparency issue, the public nature of the failures and the successes, everyone taking their lead, all the apple to mango to kiwis contrasts because these stats are out there for the world to see. Think that does play a big part, the hype and attention. Proceeding w/ caution, thanks. FWIW.

  22. JackieKmetz says

    Great post. You hit the nail on the head. I work in social analytics and for as much as we can do today with technology, we are still in a very immature industry. As you (and many others have) said, it’s not about how many Twitter followers or Facebook likes you have, it’s what you do with them. Likes and followers are purely a popularity contest but and easy, and very public way to compare something social, get an easy win. The real key, what we need to get to is tracking the action, the result. They they like you, did they read your wall post, did they click the link, did they buy what you were selling. . . we’re starting to get there but we need the rest of the branches on that tree–did they tell their friends, did they act on it? Action metrics.

  23. says

    A great post, Jay.

    It isn’t much different than any effort to move the dial using the popularity game. Whether it is a sports star on a box of Wheaties, Hollywood stars flashing Baume & Mercier watches, or one Twitter uberstar getting more comments in their blog (even if the nerdy guy with a few hundred followers is intellectually knocking it out of the park.) The internet, social media channels, the whole shebang is just a reflection of the human condition. But it is aggravated by the underlying commercial interests of the very applications we as supposed free thinking individuals use. For me, the great potential of social media has everything to do with finding that small voice, the one who has amazing things to say. All those points of light add up to something. And I am honestly not sure we as marketers really know what to do with them. We may think we can see them just as constellations in the same old haggard marketing universe we have been prodding, but as you said, social media is still a nascent industry. Do we as marketers need to do our own soul searching first, or do we just nod and say “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

    Sure, I am a marketer by profession, and I am fine with it. Measure away. But the marketing folks who look at what the likes of Mr. Gingrich do, and nod with jealous approval, thinking only of the shell game, well, they should return to selling used cars.

  24. garious1 says

    Jay, I’ve always been saying that ‘numbers do lie’ when it comes to measuring the success of your social media marketing campaign. I still cringe in hearing stories of people playing the game to be called ‘influential’ or too boost their social influence, so to speak. Who are they fooling exactly? In my case, I’m still trying to find that missing link between these numbers vs my sales funnel. So, I’m getting the visits, likes, fans and followers— but what exactly will turn them into buying customers? And so, my research goes on to finding the answer…

  25. DallasBenn says

    Only you could weave a goiter, Newt Gingrich, and “public dick measuring contest” into a cogent, believable and thoroughly entertaining post. Thanks for making this information engaging!

  26. TheGearCog says

    Hi Jay,

    Really appreciated the post!

    Correlating from what you said, I think mistakenly the formula at play here is: Popularity (numbers) = Performance (ranking) = Power (Social to metric). I also believe the fear of doing it wrong comes from the inability to do it right, since the accepted methods (ie ENDLESS lists of what to do for what social media) are seen as best practices. This also comes into play where talent at social media is judged by pure numbers to a platform, so people are trapped, even if they do not realise it.

    As you say, culture is the most important aspect in social media, not surprising considering the very strong sociological rules underpinning the mechanisms of the technology. Rightly or wrongly, I always think of the word ‘poser’ when it comes to considering social media. Just because I can put a salary man in a leather jacket and goggles, does not mean I’m gonna take his advice on a bike or buy a set of wheels from him. Its about authenticity, not duplicity.

    I trust you will forgive my ramble, just loved your article and wanted to respond.

  27. letstalkandchat says

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  28. MatchesMalone says

    I realized this stuff years ago. I don’t stress about followers, I don’t pay for any online ‘social’ media consultants, and I’m building a following organically, therefore, I disagree with your statement that I’m just as bad as Newt.

    Remember, if you can’t change the player, change the game.

  29. 40deuce says

    I completely agree with what you’ve written here @JayBaer  (as usual), although I’ve always had a bit of a down the middle take on the “quantity vs quality” debate. Of course you want to have quality followers or fans or whatevers, but sometimes the quantity counts too. If you don’t have any followers then you’re basically talking to no one. Having more followers means that you have the possibility to be heard (seen) by more people. Of course we all want all of our followers to be of high quality, but sometimes having a higher number means more people are hearing you. And of course, you can always try your best to convert those passive followers into the quality ones you really want.
    That’s my take on this whole subject anyways.
    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

    • MatchesMalone says

       @40deuce  @JayBaer What if half (or more) of your followers are doing so in order to take an opposite stance from you, on sites where they are being heard? There has to be some sort of balance, which goes to my original point.

    • cecycorrea says

      @DannyInAustin awwwww, but have you checked your klouche score? Now that one I can do without 😉

  30. says

    Hi Jay!

    I believe that the biggest problem with any measurement is that it is not aligned with a strategy objective.

    Why people measure social media activity? Because it is easy to quantify it, but it doesn’t mean that some significant value stands behind (what you showed in your article).

    The right approach to any measurement would be focusing on strategic objectives and then aligning with them action plan and specific measures.

    I explain this approach with a step-by-step example in my article:

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