Two schools of thought dominate the social media analysis landscape.

The More-the-Merrier group tracks, analyzes, and reports nearly everything because each social metric might have value. Shares demonstrate engagement. Reach shows brand awareness. Network size reflects influence.

The Social Skeptics group brushes off social signals as vanity metrics, demoting them as second-class citizens in the hierarchy of digital marketing analysis. Shares have no dollar value. Reach has no dollar value. Network size has no dollar value.

Both perspectives are incredibly dangerous.

Moreover, organizations that subscribe to either are at risk of being swayed by misleading data. Finding a middle ground with an open and analytical mind is the only way to succeed with social signals.

Here are some tips to help you find the middle ground.

  • Let the cream rise to the top. Social data should earn a seat at the decision-making table. Blind faith or total aversion to any metric or traffic source leads to analysis oversight. Marketers must let data prove themselves.
  • Think bigger than social. The lines between digital marketing channels are blurring, often working together in ways that sometimes are not easy to see. Thinking bigger than simply social, PPC, or SEO helps marketers gain perspective.
  • Always catch and release. The most successful marketing analysts accept all data, use some, and reject most of it. Before ignoring data, however, consider that social metrics tap information that other marketing channels cannot.

The Social Media Savior

The most important step to using social data is segregating everything into hard metrics and soft metrics. Hard metrics directly influence core business objectives, such as the organization's bottom line, while soft metrics indirectly contribute.

Soft social metrics can be brushed off as vanity, but hard metrics demand attention from executives. How could the C-suite possibly ignore a marketing channel with a sizable line on the income statement?

Defining Hard Social Metrics

This post can be turned into an exercise in making a list of core business objectives. Notice that I did not say online marketing objectives.

Begin with one to three of the most important.

Example Business Objective 1: Sell Custom-Manufactured Widgets

The next steps are to define the digital goals that support each marketing objective and metrics that can be used to evaluate social media contribution to each digital goal.

  • Business objective: Sell custom-manufactured widgets.
  • Digital goal: Get website visitors to lead-generation forms.
  • Social metrics: Achieve Website goal completion that include social media as a final or assisted conversion source.

For this example, using the website to drive leads is the digital goal that supports the business objective. The company can monitor how social media support that goal by quantifying the number of goal completions (with Google Analytics) to include social media as a contributing channel.

The number of lead-gen forms from social media is a hard metric because it illustrates how that channel contributed to the company's bottom line. If goal values are set in Google Analytics, it will even provide dollar value, which allows marketers to compare its revenue generation to other channels, such as AdWords or email campaigns.

The secret to using social data lies in hard metrics. Follow the steps in this post to quantify your social media contribution... and you just might be surprised by what you find.

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image of Andrew Garberson

Andrew Garberson is search marketing manager at LunaMetrics, a data and traffic analysis consultancy.

LinkedIn: Andrew Garberson

Twitter: @Garberson