Measuring Your Social Media Success

(First published in the September issue of the NTEN: Change journal.) Social media has provided nonprofits with a whole new toolbox for marketing themselves and engaging constituents. Though each tool is a little different, they all create opportunities for your organization to start conversations and to show the personal side of, and the personalities behind, your work. And though we are making huge strides as a sector to understand the most effective techniques and approaches to using these tools, we still have a lot to learn about one of the most important areas of social media: measurement. 

Think about fundraising for a second. After a year-end appeal, you probably spend some time measuring your results against past campaigns to learn what you did particularly well and what you could improve. Now apply that to social media. Measuring your activities is as important as what you’re posting, or how many times a day you post. Yet organizations regularly implement campaigns again and again without evaluating their results and practices, and even fewer measure campaigns in progress to try and improve mid-stream. Measuring lets you determine whether those two hours a week spent posting to Facebook are worth it, and how you might improve your results.
Social media remains largely uncharted territory. To succeed you must be willing to experiment and continue the practices that work while abandoning those that don’t. Measuring is how you decide which is which.

Setting Goals

Is social media working for your organization? That question seems simple enough until you start to think about it. Working for what? Compared to what? Are you doing what you are supposed to be doing? Wait, what exactly are you doing again?
It’s a lot easier to answer a specific question, like “How many comments are you getting on your blog?” That’s the secret to measurement—defining your goals, parsing out the individual social media activities that will support it, and then defining the information that will let you know if those activities are working.
Start with setting clear goals. Define what you hope to accomplish through your social media efforts. Perhaps you want to recruit more volunteers, get people to take a particular action or read a particular report, or to build your relationship with current supporters to make it more likely that they’ll continue to volunteer or attend events down the road. A nebulous goal like “increasing awareness” is virtually impossible to measure—instead, ask yourself why you want to increase awareness. What do you hope increased awareness will do for your organization? 
If you lack clear goals, you’ll find it impossible to effectively measure what you’re doing. There’s no way to know what denotes success, or even what data to gather.
As an example, think about your organization’s Facebook page. Maybe it would be useful to measure your number of fans, or the engagement of those fans—whether they click “like” on posts, comment on them, or share them with their own networks of friends. Or it could be useful to measure whether they ultimately click through to your site, sign your petition or make a donation.
Which of these are the “right” things to measure? There’s no way to know without defining what you’re trying to accomplish. You can collect infinite data points on social media activity, but if you don’t identify your goals and set clear measures of success, you can’t direct your measurement toward data that will tell you whether you’ve succeeded or failed, and how to improve.
Keep in mind that along with clear goals, you also need benchmarks for success. For some organizations, the idea of reaching 100 fans is something to strive for, while others quickly reach 1,000 and set their sights higher. If your goal is to recruit volunteers, set a specific number of volunteers that, perhaps, tell you that they found out about the opportunity on Facebook. Or if you want to spread information, define a benchmark for how many views of your resource will qualify as success. Setting numbers gives you something to measure against, and tracking it makes it easier to know what to expect for next time.
Let’s say your organization has a fundraising event coming up, and you’re planning your social media campaign to help convince people to come. Promoting the event is a vague goal. Recruiting attendees is better, but not specific enough. Recruiting 25 attendees who haven’t attended before is a specific goal that then gives you something to aim for and something to measure.
Think of it this way—your goals help you determine what data to collect, and the data you collect helps you meet your goals.

Planning Your Campaign

So you’ve defined a clear goal, or several. What’s the next step? You need to define what you’re actually going to do to try to accomplish it. We call any push to try to achieve a specific goal a “campaign.” The campaign period is a time when you make frequent, targeted posts for a specific goal. Returning to the example of your organization’s upcoming fundraiser, your campaign starts when you actively post a number of photos from past events and other information about the fundraiser in an effort to increase interest among potential attendees. 
There’s no simple formula to decide what social media activities should be part of your campaign. Trial and error may well be your best guide as to what will work well for you. Based on your goals, brainstorm social media tactics that might be effective. Perhaps you can post one new testimonial every day, or photos or videos, or round up all the relevant news on a core topic. Or you could try to engage people with polls or questions or petitions. Pick a core set of tactics that make sense to you as a way to achieve your goals.
Like a fundraising campaign, social media campaigns should be designed to achieve a specified set of targets within a specific period of time. If there’s no target and no end date, it’s impossible to judge if your tactics have worked. During a campaign, you should plan to measure a few things that are highly targeted towards your goals. By paying attention to what’s happening and what people are saying, you can adapt the campaign on the fly. You should then plan to review the metrics after the campaign is done to thoughtfully measure your successes and failures. If it worked well, you have another tool in your communications toolbox. If not, well, you’ve just learned what doesn’t work for you, so you’ll know you need to try something else next time. 

What to Measure, and How

What do you measure to keep tabs on your campaign? While there is value in casting a wide net to gain a fuller picture, balance the impulse to collect everything with a manageable and useful measurement plan. A few carefully selected and consistently collected data points are often enough to shed substantial light onto your strengths and weaknesses. Just because you can collect something doesn’t mean you should.
There are a number of ways to collect data. You can use tools provided by the channels themselves—for instance, Facebook Insights provides useful information about how many people are reading and interacting with each post. Google Analytics allows you track blog readership, or how many people are coming to your website from sites like Facebook or Twitter and where they’re going on your site. allows you to shorten and then easily track how many people clicked on a particular link, which is particularly useful for use with Twitter, or to create trackable links for different social media channels.   You can also buy third-party tools that track and measure just about anything you can imagine. Don’t forget the possibility of surveying or interviewing people to collect data. Or you can gather data on your own, through practices as simple as counting. For example, the number of people who say that they heard about your event through Facebook could be an extremely useful measure, but there’s no tool that’s going to measure it for you
Be creative—some of the best metrics are relational, like the percentage of positive versus negative comments on a blog, or the number of Facebook comments you receive from fans versus other people.
It’s important to measure not only the direct outcome of your campaign, but some indicators along the way. In our example, the goal was to sign up 25 attendees for the upcoming fundraiser—let’s say your targeted Facebook campaign only recruited five. On face value, the campaign failed. But if 300 people saw the campaign posts on Facebook and 50 responded to the event saying they were coming, you get a much different story from your measurement. Maybe a conflicting event or bad weather kept people away, but your posts sparked interest, providing feedback for your next campaign.
You can and should try to quantify your results in some way. If you find yourself saying “that’s impossible to measure,” try to prompt yourself by asking “what organizational results would I ultimately hope to see?” or “how will I know that this worked?” If you can’t define what success would look like, that’s probably an issue with your goal rather than something that can be addressed through measurement.
Your social media activities will be cyclical. Begin by setting clear goals, define how you’ll try to achieve them, and then how you’ll measure if you succeed. Take action against those goals and measure how you did. Then you go back to the beginning and start all over again. Refine your tactics and your measures based on what worked—or what didn’t work the first time around. The whole purpose of measuring is to learn from what you did so you can do it better next time. 

Maintenance Periods

We’ve talked a lot about campaigns, but you can’t always be in the middle of a campaign. On the other hand, you can’t just drop off social media channels entirely when you’re not pushing people to do something, or you’ll lose your audience. Between campaigns, it’s useful to think about more open-ended and flexible maintenance periods, when you use a more moderate amount of activity necessary to retain and grow your audience. For instance, in our example, you’d throttle back to fewer posts of a more general nature after your big event.
You should still have a specific set of goals and measurements, but for the most part these periods center around audience-building and -engagement. Measures of interest (like clicks, comments, and re-tweets) can help you to understand what’s interesting to your audience to make sure you don’t lose their attention.
Maintenance periods are the perfect time for experimentation, not campaigns. Don’t be afraid to test different strategies and use measurements to evaluate their relative success or failure. This is a good opportunity to determine when is the best time to post, what types of posts your community wants to read, or what is the most effective way to spark conversation or some other type of action.

Measure to Improve

Remember, the core idea is to keep exploring and testing. Ask yourself questions: What would work better? What’s working for others? What tactics are available to you? What’s working really well already? Then use the answers to keep exploring. Try different approaches and measure to test the results.
The only way to know what is really going to work for your community is to try. Test the waters, track your activities, and tweak your social media practice to improve going forward. That’s how you measure social media, and that’s how you measure success.
Read case studies of how organizations are tackling this effort here
For More Information
Socialbrite has a great series on social media metrics in their blog.
Beth's Blog
Beth's Blog in general is a terrific resource for all things nonprofit social media, including measurement.
"Nonprofit Social Media Decision Making Guide," Idealware. 2010 (update coming in October, 2011!)