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4 Tips for Measuring Social Media: It's Not All About The Numbers

By Paula Berg, Digital Media Leader, Linhart Public Relations

In 2006 the responsibility of Southwest Airlines' social media efforts fell into my lap. I knew nothing about social media at the time - I didn't read blogs, Twitter didn't exist, and I mocked ex-boyfriends who were using MySpace. But I had no choice but to make it part of my life. So I did the only reasonable thing. I locked myself in my office every night with a bottle of wine and tried to figure it out.

My experiences forced me to completely rethink corporate communications. More than blogging, Tweeting, or Facebooking, my role, as I saw it, was to slash through red tape and revolutionize the business of communication.

Measurement and reporting were powerful tools for justifying needs - but even for a company that completely bought in to social media, changing minds wasn't always easy. Consider this:

In July 2007, Southwest Airlines joined Twitter and began sourcecoding all of its links. Then, one week in 2008, something amazing happened. Seven people clicked from Twitter to and made a purchase. A whopping seven! We went completely nuts.

We were completely deflated, however, when one of our colleagues suggested we not report our findings because the number was “so small.” Relative to the millions of people who book their travel on each year, she was right. But where she saw something small, we saw something huge… potential.

One year later, Southwest launched a fare sale using only social media and public relations to promote it - no paid advertising - and achieved its top two sales and website traffic days in the airlines' 38-year history. If anyone thought it was an anomaly, three months later, they did it again.

The measurement challenge

Anyone who works in social media sees its power and potential every day. The challenge is convincing peers and leaders that some things will have to change in order to achieve that potential. But charts and graphs alone don't inspire change. So when measuring your social media efforts, ask the following questions:

1. What are the numbers trying to tell us?

When we began our social media efforts, the numbers weren't very impressive. So we tried to read between the numbers to spot trends and “ah-ha moments.” The question wasn't “what were the numbers yesterday?” but rather “what are they going to be tomorrow?”

2. What are we trying to prove?

The answer to this question changed over time, and our reports had to change with it. When we began using social media there was still a belief that bloggers were all 17-year-olds in their mothers' basements. Our challenge was to prove that these folks were credible journalists worthy of our attention.

3. What should we be doing differently?

Our biggest failures were often our biggest learning experiences, but in order to inspire change, we had to make sure everyone else was learning from them as well. With each misstep, we would document what went wrong, how it could have been prevented, what infrastructure changes were needed, and how we planned to address similar situations in the future.

4. Who cares?

We quickly learned that if we weren't dazzled by our reports, no one else was going to be dazzled either. Our challenge was not just to tell the story, but to sell the story by bringing the information to life, presenting it in a way that made jaws drop, and linking the numbers to business or financial goals.

Applying some basic PR principles to social media reporting can help convince peers and leaders that social media must be an integral part of overall communications strategies and help drive the changes required to get there.

Paula Berg is the digital media leader at Linhart Public Relations, where she counsels organizations on social media strategy, integration, infrastructure, and crisis management. Paula earned her social media stripes at Southwest Airlines, where she served as the company's first Manager of Emerging Media, responsible for the development of the airlines' now acclaimed online communication and social media strategy.

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