How to Prove Your Social Media Impact

March 5th, 2015

For too long, social’s contribution to business success has been ignored and undervalued. In this post, we are going to start changing that by walking through the steps necessary to finally measure social’s business impact and give social the credit it deserves.

Inspired by Jay Baer’s post, I want to share with you how you can prove the value of social media with well-known tools and a little creativity. (If you haven’t read Jay’s post, stop and do it now!)

A lot of ink has been spilled—or more aptly, words typed—on how one of the greatest challenges in social marketing is proving ROI. Many believe it is a fool’s errand to try to quantitatively determine the business value of a Facebook like or a tweet. But more recently, marketers have increasingly come to understand that engagement metrics are not enough. Showing how social media drives conversions is critical to truly demonstrating its value and to win over skeptical executives . As Nate Elliott, VP and Principal Analyst of Forrester said, “Engagement is not a useful social marketing success metric.”

The challenge for marketers is accurately measuring and attributing social’s impact on those conversions. Since social sharing is a complicated and unpredictable behavior, this is a tricky task. As Jay’s post detailed, many social conversions get misattributed, and the credit goes to direct or search.

Fortunately, the data trail is there, but for social to get the credit it deserves, the dots between the social share and the downstream conversion need to be connected. It’s challenging but not impossible. Here are the steps to track your social conversions.

Social Media Impact - Good

Step 1: Identify incoming social traffic to your website with referral analysis. Web analytics services such as Google Analytics will tell you how many people visit your site by clicking links from social media.

Step 2: Set up conversion goals in your web tracking. After finding the people that visit from social media sites, you will want to know if they performed the desired action (such as a purchase or a signup). You can do this with many event-tracking services, but Google Analytics is also great at this. You may need a software engineer to set up the events, but the event can be any digital action a visitor takes on your website, so it is customizable to your specific goals and KPIs. When combining this with Step 1, you will know how many people visited from social media sites and then converted.

(Unfortunately, this will not give social the credit in Jay’s scenario, but more on that later.)

Step 3: Move beyond last-click attribution. Most conversion measurement defaults to last-click attribution, which gives the conversion credit to the most recent referrer. However, as Jay’s post indicated, the journey to converting is not always as simple as click and then convert. This is especially true with social media. Most of the time when we are using social media we are not in the “buy now” mode. Instead, we are in discovery mode, which may be the most critical part of our decision to ultimately convert (as it was for Jay and his wife). Therefore, we can’t expect our visitors from social media to always convert that first time they visit from a social media link. It may take a couple more visits that could come from search, direct, or even retargeting.

In order to give social full credit, I suggest a “last social touch” model. If social media was ever a part of the customer’s recent visit history, this model will give the social visit closest to the conversion event the credit.

For example, let’s say Jay had pinned the bag he found to Pinterest after his friend suggested it on Facebook. If Jay’s wife had later clicked his pin, and returned several days later via Google search to purchase the bag, the credit would still go to Pinterest. Services such as Convertro can help you achieve a more nuanced attribution model.

Social Media Impact - Better

If you do steps 1–3, you will be ahead of the game in giving social the credit it deserves. However, doing just these will still limit your understanding.

For example, referral analysis is limited because many websites and mobile applications do not provide a referrer when they send traffic. Therefore, in your analytics, it may say “no referrer,” which is often interpreted as direct traffic (people typing in your website address). Also, setting up events is not a major task, but it does require some technical ability. And moving beyond last-click attribution can be challenging within your organization because different parts of the marketing team will want to take as much credit as possible (SEO, SEM, Display, etc.).

To get even better, you can follow these steps to further prove the impact of social media on your conversions.

Step 4: A critical step in measuring the impact of your social marketing is link parameters, which are offered by most services that provide conversion goals. If you want to prove the impact of social media on your conversions, there is a high likelihood you are doing significant social marketing, publishing content to your various social channels and perhaps even running social advertisements. If you are sharing links in this way, you will definitely want to prove it is effective in order to justify the financial and time investment.

Building link parameters allows you to see if people are clicking your posts and ads. By connecting your parameters to your conversion goals, you can see how many conversions were driven from your social marketing.

Parameters are flexible and can be as granular as you want. For example, you can set up new link parameters for your tweets,  allowing you to see how many people clicked links and converted from your Twitter account. You can also set up parameters for every single Facebook ad, so you can compare the effectiveness of each individual ad, rather than just Facebook ads as a whole. For example, a link from Convince and Convert may look like this:

http://www.convinceandconvert.com/podcasts/jay-today-tv/why-social-media-will-never-get-the-credit-it-deserves/?utm_campaign=facebookpost

Using link parameters allows you to rely on a landing URL for analysis which is much more reliable than referral analysis.

Step 5: Every day, social platforms are improving their native insights, and this includes conversion tracking. Led by Facebook, the platforms have realized they need to help marketers understand if social advertisements are driving conversions. Therefore, Facebook, Twitter, and now Pinterest offer their own tracking code that can be connected to conversion goals. If you use native insights already, social advertising performance relative to conversions is a great addition to your understanding of each separate social channel.

Social Media Impact - Best

If you can do steps 1–5, you should consider yourself a world-class social marketer. You are doing everything that is considered a best practice, and you should be proud of your social marketing sophistication.

However, even steps 4 and 5 have their drawbacks. They leave out a significant piece of why the customer landed on your website from social in the first place. What content did they click on? Who shared that content?

Link parameters are essential, but they leave out, arguably, the most important part of social media: the fans. Are your fans sharing your content (“earned social”)? What are they sharing? Who is sharing? Is it effective? And native insights are continuing to improve, but not everyone offers conversion analysis. You are forced to decentralize your understanding, jumping around from platform to platform to get your insights.

These final steps will break through some of those challenges and will enable your final leap to giving social media the credit it deserves.

Step 6: You can create link parameters that your fans will share by hacking your share buttons. When you install share buttons, such as those provided by AddThis, you can write code that modifies the URL that gets shared. It may require a bit of hacking by a software engineer, but you can add a unique parameter to those links. There is no SEO penalty for adding these URL fragments, and they do not look like tracking code to your fans. Simply connect the fragments to your conversion goals in your web analytics to track the impact earned social sharing has on your conversions. AddThis even allows you to add URL fragments directly into the URL address bar. This enables share tracking when people copy and paste the URL instead of using share buttons.

Step 7: Maybe the biggest challenge in giving social the credit it deserves is breaking through dark social. Jay highlights this problem in his blog post, but dark social is not just limited to this ubiquitous link sharing that happens among followers, friends, and family. Dark social has become an increasingly large problem due to mobile applications.

The key reason why? Mobile applications do not provide a referrer. Perhaps over time deep linking will solve this, but for now it is a huge problem. If you have done an excellent job of parameter tracking for both your own posts and ads and those of your fans, you won’t rely on referrer analysis as much.

However, think back to the properties of social behavior we mentioned before: Social traffic is not usually a “click and convert” scenario, parameters may be stripped in certain cases, and parameters are only applicable to the few use cases that you have complete control over. This means you will still miss many conversions that happen because of social.

Luckily, just in recent months, a ton of progress has been made in illuminating dark social. Chartbeat has a good write-up that explains you can look at other elements of traffic data to figure out where it is coming from. Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest all provide signals in the User Agent that can allow you to find these visitors from mobile social apps and see if they converted. Given the dominance of mobile in our lives, this is a critical step in getting social the credit it deserves.

At this point, you are now in the top .1% of social marketers in effectively measuring social conversions. With these methods, you may see your conversions from social double or even triple.

Even after doing all 7 steps, you have still left some conversions on the table. For example, your tracking links may get stripped, the time to convert could take weeks, and the progress in dark social still leaves the problem of services that don’t provide referrer or user agent hints like email (including Gmail!). Mobile, instant, and text messaging are such a significant part of our communicative lives and are some of the biggest sources of earned social sharing.

Inside Social, a social marketing measurement and optimization platform, exists to solve these last problems in addition to taking all seven previous steps off your hands. It handles each step in a centralized platform across all social channels.

Armed with a complete understanding of social’s impact on your business, you will be able to drive more conversions by leveraging the data to do better social marketing. You will be able to get more budget for social marketing by proving its ROI, and you will be able to evaluate social media effectiveness with the same success metrics as your other digital marketing channels. Finally, social will get the credit it has long been due!

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