As legendary ad man Bill Bernbach once said, “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.” But as our industry has moved from the analog to the digital realm, the definition of “truth” has never been more difficult to agree on. Especially when it comes to social media attribution and reporting metrics.

As part of my role as the Director of Social Media Strategy at The Escape Pod, I recently began taking deep dives into reporting standards shared by the industry. Then I looped in standards reported by various agencies of all kinds – media, PR and advertising. Output was across the board.

I remember sitting at my desk, sipping soon-to-be lukewarm cup of coffee and thinking, ‘How are we in 2018 and can’t seem to come to a consensus in how social media reporting is handled? How many campaigns and consumer interactions were prompted by activities and reports that were totally off?’

So I began my mission.

A brief history

In the days of Web 1.0, we used to fight for getting an impression counted for a banner ad. I have the clearest memories of piecing together eMarketing spreadsheets at Orbitz. I would look at a particular piece of content and track through purchases starting from Day 1 – 30. That’s right – we used to track an airline ticket purchase from various days after the pixel was fired from the banners. Not only that, but we would determine if that particular purchase came from an impression or a click.

Then the rise of spyware came and the world of performance marketing changed again. Digital marketing practitioners were going between clicks, impressions and THEN last click. Questions we dealt with back then:

  • What was the last click as it relates to attribution? Did it matter?
  • What was the consumer journey, from soup to nuts?
  • Why isn’t that initial Google Adwords click not going into consideration when Jane Doe purchased shoes from Macy’
  • Why is the last click from the sponsored ad getting the credit?
  • What if Jane first clicked on the Google ad buy the newest ad she saw converted her to purchase?

Imagine the debates that ensued on the stages of conference panels across the globe. I’ve seen digital marketing panels where people got red in the face and shouted over one another about click attribution.

I remember when the industry was so upset with eBates and its last click model that digital marketers suggested brands did not run a performance marketing campaign just to avoid the competition of attribution and eBates.

Whether it was standards around sizing, tracking or reporting, one constant entered the picture: The Interactive Advertising Bureau. The IAB became a fixture in the digital advertising space. The IAB stood in the middle of the industry with their hands up and shouted, ‘Enough!’. Today, you can peruse the depth of the IAB’s site and get standards on digital ads. From ad unit size to types of ads, etc., it’s a terrific resource.

It didn’t just stop with ad units. The IAB also established a very robust approach to reporting. From caching to ad calls to the very microcosm of what makes an impression, I highly recommend you give this a read. We now have standards for a form of digital advertising that seems to be its own black hole – programmatic ads.

The need for social media reporting standards

I am yet to see a standard for social media reporting. In an era where we recognize that people are on their devices more than ever, coupled with executives’ bonuses and job moves dependent on accurate data, where is the standardization?

Let’s explore this in more detail.

It appears that brands and agencies have their respective definitions for what is considered essentials in social media reporting. For some, it’s engagement. For others, it’s reach. At The Escape Pod, we like the combination of engagement AND subsequent digital actions. By digital actions, I mean:

  • Was there a sale?
  • Did the post/ad result in a completed action?
  • Where did the user go on the brand website after interacting with the content?
  • Was there a lift in searches and/or mentions around the same time the content went live?

As more third party tools come on the market that pull data from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, there needs to be standardization as to HOW everything is tracked and WHAT metrics are the most important.

Engagement by any other name…

The standard metrics of likes, comments and shares are commonplace, but the method of reporting is disparate. Some third-party tools do not count website clicks as engagement, however, native tools like Facebook do. This inspires SO MANY questions for people like me, whose success as marketers relies heavily on the reported actions our content and programs drive.

For instance: Video views are a form of engagement, but should they be intertwined in the main engagement metric or considered a separate type of metric? In addition, Facebook considers a 3-second video view as a real view, but we all know that many videos start automatically in the newsfeed. Is this 3-second view being used solely for Brand Lift studies, to thus sell in more of Facebook’s video capabilities? Kudos to Facebook for allowing advertising to pay upon full 10 second view count.

Should true engagement from a video view begin at the 10-second mark? Should video engagement be the full completion of watching a video? Should the focus be on the percentage completed of the video view?

The list goes on and on.

Brands are in a tough spot

In my experience, what’s considered to be the most important social media metrics are established by a brand’s legacy system. Changing such a system is typically tedious and takes buy-in across multiple disciplines. Whether a brand is siloed or if various stakeholders are fighting for their team’s metric to look as strong as possible, time is lost.

In the world of a retweet, DM or a video taking off, time is precious. It may take a brand team six months to a year to convince the organization to alter the way social media reporting is done. Not to mention the challenge of who ‘owns’ social media within the organization. (I believe it’s everybody, complete with a center of excellence that helps all stakeholders understand how social media can impact the business).

A system needs to be created across all social media platforms that sets forth a black and white method for tracking all activities.

A brand should be able to gauge the success of their social media activities in a way that isn’t rocket science, but most importantly, level sets the playing field.

Agencies should be held to the same standard, versus creating their respective success rates as it relates to how they create, manage and implement social media campaigns.

How to move forward

I’m calling for an industry-wide reality check. Social media is no longer just the space where users post pictures of their favorite pizza places. It’s evolved into a bonafide multi-billion dollar game changer.

‘Social media’ is how we are communicating with the rest of the world.
‘Social media’ is how we are discovering new brands and services.
‘Social media’ is where we are getting recommendations for our next vacation.
‘Social media’ is where we are distributing highly produced content across multiple segments.

It’s time we consistently evaluate the way in which we report on social media metrics, putting its importance on par with traditional digital marketing and advertising.