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Social media is full of numbers, but most of the time we don't use them in any actionable way. The reason is simple: Social metrics are often too complicated to understand, and they provide few clues on how we can improve our success.

The reality is that the return on social media marketing can vary widely for each business. Some companies see quick and immediate returns, while others fail to see much of anything at all. What could the problem be? And, more important, how can we be sure that our business won't fail online?

This article looks to answer those questions by offering a few quick-and-dirty methods for gauging your online marketing strengths and weaknesses.

Through the use of these basic metrics (the data for which you are in all likelihood already gathering), you can gain insight about how you are actually performing and glean some good ideas on how you can improve performance.

We'll start by asking three key questions, and then we'll do some basic calculations to measure our success in each area:

  1. Are my efforts bringing traffic to my website?
  2. Is my social reach growing?
  3. Are people enjoying my content?

Remember, these are intended to be rough calculations that give us a general idea of success. They may not be perfect, but they will give you actionable insights you need to succeed online.

Question 1: Are my efforts bringing traffic to my website?

One of the primary reasons for any business to get involved in social media is to bring traffic to its website. Your social presence has intrinsic importance, but it means much more if it's serving that greater need. Without being obnoxious and sharing a link to your website every five minutes, you should make sure that a steady stream of traffic is flowing as a result of well-planned efforts on your social media properties.

The good news is that most of us are already tracking this information. Google Analytics is free and can be installed on your site easily. If your site is running on WordPress, then the Jetpack plug-in will provide you with a completely free stats package in a matter of minutes.

Once you have implemented an effective method for monitoring traffic, you need to check on two metrics: monthly referral traffic and month-over-month traffic growth.

Metric 1: Monthly Referral Traffic

You need to know where your traffic is coming from. For most websites, the top source of traffic will be Google. After that, though, you should be seeing the social networks that you participate on. A simple way to measure their share of traffic is to add up all of the visits from social networks in a month, and then divide that number by total traffic. That calculation will tell you what percentage of your traffic is generated from social media:

Metric 2: Month-Over-Month Traffic Growth

Most stats packages track two useful types of monthly traffic (among others): new visitors and total pageviews. Don't get hung up on either; for tracking purposes, just pick one. Take a single month's traffic and compare it to the traffic from the same month in the previous year. You will end up with something like this:

This is a helpful metric to track each month. I have a spreadsheet set up in Google Docs documenting our progress month over month for the last couple of years.

Question 2: Is my social reach growing?

Social reach is basically a reference to the size of your social media audience. It is true that every social network prominently displays your follower count on its site, but how much do these numbers really matter?

More and more, I am convinced that those are merely vanity metrics that deserve little attention. To calculate the true reach of our social media messages, you need to look beyond those vanity metrics with a couple of simple calculations.

Metric 1: Potential Audience Reach

Potential audience reach can be determined by measuring the number of people participating in sharing your posts and adding up the number of followers that they potentially serve.

For Twitter, that can be done manually. On Facebook, it is a bit more difficult, but it can be done via Facebook Insights.

Metric 2: Email List Conversion

Believe it or not, the growth of your email list provides a reasonable indicator of your social media success. As your social and blogging efforts bring new traffic, that traffic should result in new subscribers and followers. Tracking that growth is easy. This metric will tell you approximately how many conversions resulted from your social activity:

Question 3: Are people enjoying my content?

We know that great content matters most for social media success. Your followers want useful and helpful information. The great thing about social media is that consumers of your content have a variety of methods for "voting" on its quality.

Metric 1: Total Engagement Score

This simple metric will give you a glimpse of the big picture. By measuring a variety of metrics in one simple score, you can get a pretty good idea of how interesting and engaging our content really is. For each week, complete the following calculation:

Metric 2: User Feedback Wall

Frequently, commenters or email recipients will let you know what they think of your content. Usually, such comments are within a larger comment, but they are very important for you to notice. Start a Google Doc that will help you organize and track you feedback. You could break that feedback down into a few possible metrics, including this one:

Conclusion: Taking Action

Perhaps you have your own equations you use to track metrics. The key is to track them consistently and over a period of time to ensure you have stable numbers for measuring growth.

Tracking metrics this way can be a lot of work, but the reward is clear: You will be able to measure your success, and you'll have numbers to prove it to your team and to management.

The biggest benefit of these simple calculations is a good understanding of where you are succeeding and where you are falling short. They may be quick and dirty, but they can help you make changes that will improve your social media presence over the long term.

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image of Garrett Moon

Garrett Moon is the CEO and a co-founder of marketing calendar provider CoSchedule.

LinkedIn: Garrett Moon

Twitter: @garrett_moon