Apply a grain of salt to social media research reports

Posted on May 3, 2011 11:58 am by | Audio | Research | Social Media

imageSocial media is the source of more research than any topic I can think of. There’s research undertaken by research companies like Forrester, professional services firms like McKinsey & Company, by large organizations like IBM and by every marketing agency and service provider looking to get a little press. The tactic of sponsorsing research in order to issue a press release and get some ink is nothing new, but with the proliferation of social media-focused companies, the volume of research has exploded.

With the release of these studies, you can find commentary by any number of analysts, consultants, columnists, reporters and bloggers (including me). Marketers and executives who find these studies often react to topline conclusions. It’s a tendency many of us have: “If the research says X, then we must change what we’re doing.”

Keeping an eye on research is important, but the results of each study need to be viewed in the context of your own efforts which are, to one degree or another, unique. The variables in each social media effort include (but are certainly not limited to) the audience you’re trying to reach, the story you’re trying to tell, the outcomes you’re trying to achieve (and the key performance indicators you’ve selected to assess just how well your efforts are working), the combination of media and channels you’re employing and the communities, constituents and stakeholders likely to engage with you.

How many companies abandoned corporate blogs in the wake of the 2008 Forrester study that found consumers distrust them? Digging into the study revealed the reasons for this distrust, mainly that brands used the blogs to talk about themselves rather than customer issues and topics of interest to brand enthusiasts. The headline, though, may have been all that was some marketers and executives needed to shut down a blog, regardless of its actual effectiveness or potential.

In just the last week or so, several studies have emerged that have attracted attention. I worry about the kneejerk reactions organizations will have to these studies. Each study shares valuable insights on which we can act, but action without analysis is likely to result in bad decisions. For instance…

Reputation Institute

The Global RepTrak Pulse study finds that that mainstream media—along with social media, subject matter experts, leaders, and family and friends—wields virtually no influence over a customer’s perception of an organization’s reputation. The Institute’s study finds that direct experience is the greatest influencer of reputation. More than 74% of respondents had a favorable view of a company’s reputation if they had direct experience with products, customer service, investments or employment at the organization, compared to just over 63% for those who didn’t. That’s a reputation gap of 11.15%

Next comes the “say/do” factor—what a company says and what it does. Branding, PR, marketing and CSR efforts are all part of this equation, and the reputation gap is 4.61%.

But “What Others Say” produces a reputation gap of a negative 1/100th of a percentage point, signalling that your media relations efforts (targeting the mainstream press) and social media efforts (like blogger outreach) have no impact on an organization’s reputation. That’s the nugget that has attracted the attention of many writing about the study.

As a result, I can imagine executives demanding to know why they’re throwing good many after bad for media relations activities, or what all this social media activity is supposed to accomplish. Yet digging into the numbers provides more clarity. To begin with, the study surveyed the public at large, without targeting your audience unless your audience is, in fact, the public at large. A business-to-business audience, special interest groups, existing customers, brand advocates, investors—none of these audiences are reflected in the results.

Further, the study assesses trust, admiration, esteem and good feeling. There’s no questioning the importance of these factors, but are these the outcomes on which your media relations efforts are focused? You need to revisit your KPIs to determine whether this study should lead you to make any changes to your efforts.


Last month, content discovery firm Outbrain released its Content Discovery and Engagement Report for 2011’s first quarter. The headline finding of this study: Your site gets fewer visits from social media properties than from search engines and content sites, and whey they do find you via social channels, they are significantly less engaged with your site.

According to the study, around 10% of referrals come from social media sites, compared to 41% from search engines and about 31% from content sites. But really, is 10% bad? Search has been around much longer than social media and 10% could represent a significant increase in traffic to your site. But regardless of the study’s numbers, you need to look at your own. Based on whom you’re reaching, your numbers could be significantly higher…or lower.

Generating visits to your site may not be the outcome you’re seeking from your social activities. In fact, more and more companies are recognizing that their destination sites are being marginalized, leading to more investment and focus on properties such as Facebook pages; TV commercials routinely list Facebook URLs instead of the address of the brand’s destination site.

And, if you work in a news or entertainment organization, the results are much better, with social media driving 42% and 30% of traffic respectively.

Another study result bears scrutiny in light of your own goals and results, too. According to the research, visitors from social sites viewed fewer pages and had a higher bounce rate than those coming from search and content sites. You need to check to see if this is true of those visiting your site; after all, your website may be better designed to motivate people to stick around than the average site.

What should you consider in regards to these “sticky” factors? To start with, is staying on the site or visiting more than one page essential—is it one of your KPIs—or were you more interested in visitors seeing the specific content on the page they landed on? Second, what did visitors to the site who found you via social media actually do while they were there? Even if they didn’t stay long or view a lot of pages, they may well have followed up on your call to action, downloading a white paper, sharing the page with Facebook friends or taking steps to become a viable lead. You also need to determine whether the initial visit led them to come back for more later, or to make a connection with the organization through a third-party social media channel like Twitter or Facebook. The fact that they bounced quickly doesn’t mean they didn’t initiate a relationship with your organization.


Expion, a software company, ranked 312 major food service companies based on the number of people who liked their Facebook pages and then remained “active,” those who post on the wall or comment on text, pictures or videos. The comparison between the food service companies with the most likes and those with the most active users who liked the page is striking. Starbucks is the top foodservice company in terms of overall likes with 21.3 million. But 6.4% of those who liked the YO! Sushi page are active, which puts the brand (which, frankly, I’ve never heard of) at the top of the list. Among those who liked Starbucks’ page, the number of active users is a lowly 0.1%.

The numbers change again for the highest percentage of active fans over an established threshold. Denny’s takes the top spot in this ranking, with 2%.

Generally, this is a compelling and useful bit of research. I’ve been showing it to brands in other industries to try to discourage them from the absurd and sometimes disturbing tactics more and more companies are employing to build up the total number of likes.

But again, this will depend on the reason you want those fans. Restaurant executives at some of the chains listed in the study argue, according to Nation’s Restaurant News (which commissioned the study) that “cultivating a core of actively engaged Facebook fans rather than carrying passive users who ‘like’ their brands once and never interact increases their return on marketing investment. Active fans are more likely to follow new products and promotions and tend to share news of brands they follow with their friends.”

The vast majority of organizations will want that ROI more than an artificially-produced number of fans. But consider Dominos Pizza which, after the infamous incident involving employees posting a YouTube video showing them doing disgusting things with customer-bound food, reached out to its quarter-million fans to help identify the culprits. That request hit the news feed of everybody who liked the page, not just active users.

As more studies emerge on a regular basis (ClickZ’s stats page is a great place to stay on top of studies, along with Mashable and ReadWriteWeb, among others), don’t succumb to the temptation to adjust your efforts based on those topline results. Digest the study’s conclusions but dig deeper into the numbers, then assess their relevance to your own goals and objectives.

If you make changes based on these sweeping studies, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

UPDATE—Minutes after posting this, I found another study, this one from IBM, The State of Marketing 2011, which (among other things) points out that more than half the respondents say their enthusiasm toward social media marketing has been tempered. This could lead an executive or marketer to declare social media the fad he or she always knew it to be. But those respondents could be, for example, the ones who never applied strategic principles to their efforts in the first place. And so it goes…



  • 1.A grain! salt! ah my friend, I'm so jaded coming from the political world, surveys, statistics, et. al leave an aftertaste so bitter, it's like a bad pistachio. Have you ever had one of those?

    Agree with you, numbers are relative things : )

    I was recently on a webinar where many companies in smaller towns wondered by people were not engaging in Facebook. I mean if Facebook were a country it would be the 2 largest. Well apparently if those companies dug into Facebook's advertising targeting capabilities they would see their hamlet had the dreaded Less than 20 response for their "neck of the woods"

    I understand that the world can be a market, but not if you are a dry cleaner on 7th and main street : )

    all the best to you and your readers.

    Albert Maruggi | June 2011 | St. Paul, MN

  • 2.I still find a massive leap between those who think it matters and those who actually make it matter. This gap will shrink over time. (It's like the SEO industry 5 years ago.)

    Conrad from Avvo

    Conrad Saam | June 2011 |

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