How PR 2.0 Created the Social Media Bubble

Bubble Bokeh
Image by John Petrick

The social media influence bubble finds its basis in measurement of inaccurate barometers. While one can use glittering generalities in defining influence — such as the ability “to cause desirable and measurable actions and outcomes” — in reality, those desirable actions are vapid benchmarks. Specifically, PR 2.0 measurements are participation oriented: retweets, impressions, follower counts, blog rankings, and other public measures of “conversation.”

Responsibility for the resulting social media bubble and the increasing demand for impact belongs to the PR industry in its 2.0 incarnation. It’s the same industry that during the 1.0 era relied on similar metrics, such as number of press clippings, impressions (sound familiar?), and the winner of all metrics, ad equivalency. Current PR definitions of success online will always be suspect, just as the industry’s prior metrics always led CEOs to question the value of public relations.

As the Harvard Business Review so adequately stated it, “‘social’ media is trading in low-quality connections — linkages that are unlikely to yield meaningful, lasting relationships.” PR 2.0’s popularity based metrics gauge attention, but not business actions. Common business actions include sales and brand reputation for companies, and donations and advocacy for causes. For that matter, current social media metrics fail to measure attitude (reputation), the hallmark of PR.

Three As of Measurement_thumb[2].png
See Kami Huyse’s post on the the three As of measurement.

Measuring attention has created the very strange ongoing conversation about influencers, and their thoughts. Influential talking heads — as determined by attention metrics — dominate today’s social web conversation. Influence also allows PR pros to build lists of “important people” to target for pitching in the hopes of achieving earned social media impressions. Sound a little like the old media relations game?

Like PR 1.0’s impressions, attention in social media has its value. There’s a reason why attention represents one of the three As. But it only represents a piece of the puzzle. Because inexperienced businesses and nonprofits were desperate to adapt they accepted the PR industry’s social media metrics as the answer. And as such, over-reliance on PR 2.0 metrics have created the increasingly discussed bubble.

Attitudes and Actions

Social media communications represents a confluence of disciplines, from the already discussed PR to advertising and relationship development (called business development, sales or development depending on the type of organization). Social can also include HR, customer service, etc., but from a pure marketing standpoint, these are the three primary internal disciplines. Traditionally, while all three intersect at times within social, advertising’s call to action and networking yield sales and long-term relationships.

Three Primary Skill Sets Used in Social Communications

That doesn’t mean that advertising would have done a better job defining metrics. Pay per click, and more specifically the click through rate, still hang over the industry as debatable cost metrics for online properties. But advertising’s legacy is that a campaign works if sales increase. In the case of branding campaigns, advertising works if reputation and awareness increase. Advertising skills have their role in the art of getting people to the site, then getting them to commit to an action.

Yet advertising’s downfall has always been its inability to develop one-on-one relationships, which for many organizations falls to the development team. In business-to-business organizations and nonprofits this role and title should be familiar. Even large consumer product organizations have relationship developers that vie for channels and distribution. In consumer product and service companies after the sale, the customer relations department often takes over.

These people create, build and sustain critical relationships for years, even decades. Applied, development skills bring that irreplaceable relationship element to social media marketing and communications. Relationship development builds a sense of loyalty within a community. This extends beyond the momentary casual interaction to continued participation and actions over time.

To become more effective, social media metrics need to take into account the other marketing disciplines at play. That means measuring real actions such as sales/donations as well as reputation, advocacy and strength of community. A retweet algorithm won’t cut it, nor should a business or cause blindly accept attention metrics as the sole determination of program success.

What Will Happen When the Bubble Bursts

Bubble Burst

Businesses and causes are already questioning the value of social media programs. Their highly touted Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts aren’t answering the right kinds of questions about impact. Navigating truths and myths about disruptive communication technologies will force a much deeper level of accountability for communicators and other professionals using social tools.

This change in tone and accountability is already being felt. The recession is forcing organizations and companies to make their communications programs work correctly, or drop them altogether.

Unfortunately, the backlash towards attention based metrics could be severe. More and more voices are quick to cry smokescreen, and communicators who can’t navigate delivering hard business results will likely struggle. Claims of social media expertise may become a great big red flag, while understanding how to integrate and measure online communications within a larger marketing program will be a sought after skill set.

What would be unfortunate is if the backlash is too severe and swings completely towards sales goals without respect for relationships, or the necessary step of garnering community attention. As with most things in life, the middle road is the best course. Only time can tell what will actually happen.

What do you think of the social media bubble? Are PR 2.0 metrics and the organizations that accepted them to blame?

  • Very interesting read – though I struggle to see how PR 2.0 specifically created the mess, in my mind many parties are to “blame” both on the marketing side and the PR side. While correlating social media actions to actual business objectives is key, one of the main issues I see time and time again is an organizations’ inability to measure social’s impact on very basic business objectives, such as sales or sales leads. If they do track such information, getting the data from the IT group can be like squeezing blood from a stone. Custom social measurement solutions can be incredibly cost prohibitive, which makes many turn to free online tools which just scratch the surface. As Chris Brogan recently posted, it’s not about the data, it’s about what the data tells us. Getting the right data can be half the battle, especially when you’re trying to determine a social media program’s worth against actual business objectives that live outside of the PR or marketing function.

    • Interesting response, Nate. In the era of analytics it’s
      hard to justify not having access to the data such as sales leads.
      Any CMO knows that part of their job is tracking those leads, and
      where they come from and how. And this functionality can be built
      into any web site design, usually run by the marketing department
      in even the largest companies, so I’m not sure how IT comes into
      it.

      I totally agree. Analytics always serve as a barometer to inform and make
      decisions. As KD Paine, the measurement Queen, likes to say you
      make better communications using measurement to achieve your
      objectives. Thank you for commenting.

  • Geoff,

    Part of the problem is that people are over focused on data — social interactions — and not outcomes, much like you said. It reminds me when I was a student studying psychology.

    I had my own rat, named Jack Daniels. And he was the only rat that wouldn’t perform the conditioning experiments as expected. The professor was dazzled, thinking that I had somehow conditioned my rat incorrectly (to get a drop of water by pressing a bar, among other things) because the professor was only looking at only the DATA.

    When he finally took the time to take a look at the rat, Jack turned out to be Jackie. And she, being the only female in the bunch, was pregnant. Outcomes matter. Everything else just helps get you there with about as much reliability as predicting the weather, and probably a lot less now days.

    All my best,
    Rich

    • I agree, Rich. In the end the only thing that will keep a program going are its end results, or the possibility of tweaking the program to better achieve desired results. Somewhere along the line, we got stuck on the noise.

      Using another metaphor, I tend to take the Baltimore Washington Parkway whenever I fly out of BWI. Invariable there’s always a cop or an accident on the side of the road causing a two mile back-up. When you get to the site of the incident, it’s often cleaned up, just residue rubber necking. We have turned into a web community of rubberneckers who gave forgotten where we are going!

  • To me, social media is an interesting beast. While results are always important, there are always certain things that just can’t be measured. While we in the industry are always looking for new and interesting ways to be measuring how effective our social media campaigns are, there’s only so much that can actually be measured. Relationships are a huge part of social media, and while we can measure these relationships to some extent, a lot of it can’t really be measured. Especially by what is happening online.
    I think that while we can measure to find areas to tweak and what seems to be working and what doesn’t, we still have to place a little faith in the power of relationships. I think if these relationships are done correctly than overall results will show great outcomes, but we may not be able to measure just how exactly we got there.
    Good social media measurement will be a mix of things we can actually measure and things we can’t and we’ll just have to accept that.

    Chers,
    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

    • Thank you, Sheldon. There’s always an element of relationship development, but I’m pretty sure relationship and community development can be tied to outcomes. Like you I agree there are many day in day out intangibles that can’t be measured, but the results can. It’s tricky, yet I find it hard to believe that we can just cosign expenditure without eventually seeing a result.

  • Hi Geoff,

    Fantastic blog post. I just wanted to clarify that our use of Brian’s definition of influence was not intended to demonstrate support of measuring actions rather than outcomes. That isn’t the case at all — it was used to simplify the concept of influence. There wasn’t supposed to an implied conversation of measuring metrics. Thinking more about it, I’d probably switch that definition up to say something like: “to cause desired actions that garner measurable outcomes.” In that format, there’s clarification in where your measurement activities should be targeted. I might have to write a follow-up post (or invite you over to help clear things up :-)).

    I think it’s important we start these conversations in general terms and chip away at those generalities to land on more applicable and effective tacks for progress. Thank you for doing that with your post, here. I do wholeheartedly agree that measuring activity over outcomes is a strategy threaded with ineffectiveness and possibly failure.

    Thank you for getting me thinking and helping me clarify some of my thoughts on this. It’s much appreciated.

    Cheers,
    Teresa

    —-

    Teresa Basich
    Community Manager, Radian6

    • Thanks, Teresa. Yes, the more specific you can be the better. It was my intent to get specific with business goals and outcomes. The best way to get beyond marketing generalities — which a lot of this has become mired in — is to provide examples. They always clarify the picture. Thanks for coming by and adding your thoughts!

  • First of all Geoff, thanks for the shout out! There is lots of truth in what you say, but also a few too many generalities for my taste. Yes, there are way too many people — PR, Advertising AND Marketing all — that are looking at attention metrics like fans and followers. However, I think many of them realize it is but a crude first step. Certainly the ones I talk to regularly are looking to make that connection between activity and outcome — or else they woudln’t be talking to me. Are they the majority, no, but they are a growing segment.
    I also object to your blaming PR for all the woes. In fact, equal amounts of silly metrics that I’ve encountered come out of marketing and advertising departments.
    I think the biggest falacy, however, is to assume that what happens in social media measurement is the responsibility of PR or Advertising or Marketing. In reality, social media is today an integral part of doing business. Some of the conversation is relevant to IR, some to HR, some to Customer Service.. Therefore, the department n charge of measuring it should be the same that measures all other aspects of business performance, the COO/CFO not the CMO. The best people to assess the efforts are the people who can actually figure out the true impact and outcomes of social media programs, i.e. the business intelligence guys who really understand data analytics, correlations, and predictive analysis.
    Sure, you need to include relationship and engagement measurement as one of the variables, but that’s a walk in the park for most real research people.

    • Thanks, Katie. Most definitely there are good pros in the PR side of the business. Heather Whaling, Justin Goldsborough, Kami (of course), etc. And as you say the ones you talk to are most definitely looking for the answer.

      For everyone of those, I see three of them touting Klout as an answer, or talking about total reach, measurement paradigms from the 1.0 answer. I see this more from PR people and the dreaded social media experts. Their definition of measurement — particularly influence — has become the increasingly dominant source of conjecture and questioning in the biz. So I call ’em like I see ’em in this. Generally, this has been my experience with PR my entire career, for every great IABC/APR practitioner I find three touting their friend counts.

      Do other parties have blame to shoulder? Yes, probably first and foremost the businesses that co-signed this. I do think social media experts may be more of the noise with this matter. But again, one has to look at the source and type of metrics, and these current participation metrics are largely PR oriented. I also think the CMO does have the primary role of measuring, not the COO or CFO. I rarely find CFOs who can communicate beyond their business function.

      Thanks as always for your great insights, and for gracing this blog with your wisdom.

  • I think the biggest problem Geoff is in the very people at whom this is aimed.

    PR has, as you rightly say, been an industry with quite fixed (and long-ingrained) ways to measure what it does. For years, nothing came along to replace it or even better it, until the dawn of online pr rose and pr people realised that the”public” in “public relations” also meant message reaching online…but the problem was, online was always the domain of “techie types”, digital agencies who dealt in page views, bounce rates, click-through rates and the like – terminology which was (and i’d argue remains) entirely alien to a pr agency.

    With the weight of expectation that PR agencies need to take the lead on social media, they take whatever metrics *seem* to be the closest to what they know i.e. coverage = number of mentions = awareness.

    Naturally, the downfall comes when the pr agency begins to carry out whatever it has sold to the client on the understanding that sheer numbers of followers or mentions is the end goal. Now, in some cases, it IS, but there are many other impact factors on social media activity that the ill-informed pr agency is aware of, or understand enough to weave into their interactions (things like special offers once they have earned their place in the community, freebies for signing -up example) – as such, they think they have done their job in getting followers, but I always liken it to bringing up a child: the child will naturally grow larger (as would a community being promoted by a PR agency), but how that child grows up, what it believes in and its values are, are determined by the nurturing its parents provide it – building branded communities is exactly the same thing.

    Each set of community activities brings with it a different set of metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of it – but I’m not convinced that many pr agencies understand what basic analytics tell them, and therefore do the online version of free-wheeling when they talk to customers.

    As I said in my post about time management in community participation:

    “the objective defines the channel, the channel defines the type and quantity of content you create, the volume of comments defines the time you spend engaged with customers. ”

    What I probably should have added, is that the objective also defines the metric – pick an objective then pick your metrics.

    I don’t think we are far away from generating a reasonably universal standard of what we mean by engagement/influence etc., but i think that pr agencies DO need to spend much more of their time understanding what analytics mean and how website strategies adapt according to what comes back to them.

    • Per your post, I definitely agree that more parties share the blame. I may have been too sensational in the post title, but it was definitely an observation about the type of metric mostly associated with the bubble, and you are dead on in your analysis of how it happened.

      In this comment you bring up PR’s lack of awareness of other disciplines and that is the crux of the problem. Not just for PR either, but for each of the disciplines. Cross functionality, the hybrid skill set is best suited to this environment, and a blend of metrics again paired to desired business outcomes are likely the smart approach! Perhaps the child will grow into that role. Thanks for the thoughtful conversation, Paul.

  • Geoff,
    Clearly social media is a platform that challenges the status quo and defies easy metrics. Followers/Fans/Retweets and so on seem very ‘old web’ to me; they look so much like the eyeballs of the beginning of the web. They measure quantity only and not quality. But social media is about relationship, networks, influence and quality is important.
    A mass of people that mention a brand/product once in a blue moon is far less valuable than a handful of ones who frequently share brand updates with the communities they belong to, and of course, they tend to get those brand updates from your social media activities.
    If a brand in beauty has accumulated 10k followers without knowing who they are, how is that valuable for them? They don’t know. However if they have 500 beauty bloggers, 300 fashion bloggers, 1000 moms, 200 retweets per month from a subset of them, the metrics becomes more qualitative and thus meaningful and actionable.
    Laurent

    • “A mass of people that mention a brand/product once in a blue moon is far less valuable than a handful of ones who frequently share brand updates with the communities they belong to, and of course, they tend to get those brand updates from your social media activities.” We need to measure strength of community as part of the networking set, no question.

  • Pingback: Social Media needs a lesson in Analytics | blending the mix()

  • An interesting post and discussion.

    Online measurement and analytics are not skills PR people have been taught traditionally. Until very recently they were not being taught to PR students in Universities either.

    Analytics is very important in social media – in the beginning when you are listening to the conversation, the middle when you are analyzing those conversations and devising your content strategy and then again at the end when you are measuring results.

    Analytics and the ability to extract social media intelligence is a skill I believe every PR person needs to master.

    It will be interesting to see how the PR students at USC take to this. My class starts next week on Tuesday. And Laurent’s product is one of those I will be introducing them to.

    • I totally agree, Sally. We need to teach a blend of analytical skills to communicators today, and not just for social media. I think it’s important to see the larger business/cause context and the impact small, medium and large programs have. Wish I was at Annenberg for that class!

  • Pingback: The Cline Group » Blog Archive » Are you putting strategy first?()

  • More social media bubble talk, this time from Newsweek:
    http://www.newsweek.com/2011/01/05/social-media-next-dot-com-bubble.html

  • Pingback: Is PR Responsible for Bad Social Media Measurement? | Online PR technology trends | Sally Falkow | The Leading Edge()

  • Pingback: In 2011, 70% of all social media activity will fail | blending the mix()

  • Pingback: Strength of Community Supersedes Influence | Geoff Livingston's Blog()

  • Pingback: Social Media Marketing HQ | Learn Social Media From the Industry's Brightest Minds » Link Love Monthly: Best of January 2011()

  • Pingback: What ARE Influencers Good For? | Geoff Livingston's Blog()

  • Anonymous

    Geoff you are dead right. This is the first time in the history of media that PR people can actually create and control the channels themselves, and in many cases they have abused the privilege.

    • Anonymous

      Worse, they have control of many of the top blogs in the sector, so it’s a self fulfilling conversation right now. It’s really bad for blogging as a tactic, as it’s demonstrative of propaganda as opposed to thought and opinion. You know I pride myself on blogging, and this drives me fricking nuts. No ethics, none.