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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > September 2012

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Vol. 32 No. 7 — September 2012
THE DIGITAL STRATEGIST
Measuring Social Media and the Greater Digital Landscape
by Helene Blowers
Director of Digital Strategy, Columbus Metropolitan Library


Remember the good old days of the internet, when the measurement of your organization’s digital landscape was merely tracked in page hits, site visits, and unique visitors? The tools used for tracking and reporting website usage were simple and straightforward then. Data always came from the same primary source, the server’s log files.

If you were into detailed analytics, you could extract a huge mountain of data from these files—everything from tracking what sites provided the most traffic through referrals (i.e., links) and what pages were the entry points to the most popular content pages and average time per session. Keeping track of the digital world was definitely easier back then, before Facebook, Twitter, and an explosion of new mobile apps ripped through this simple-to-measure bits and bytes landscape. Today, understanding your organization’s digital impact requires analyzing multiple sets of analytics from a variety of sources. With measurement rulers seldom the same, it’s a challenge to pull it all together.

Yet, despite the challenges that this new landscape creates, it’s important to understand the global digital environment. Just because your traditional website stats may be trending down, it doesn’t mean that your digital usage is down. Your customers may still be accessing your organization digitally, but they may do it through other entry points and channels, such as a mobile app or Facebook.

Measuring Sticks in a Digital Environment

The measuring sticks for today’s digital environment tend to fall into one of two groups: usage and influence. Usage stats are the type that most organizations understand best since they hail from those good ol’ days of the past. Statistics such as user visits, sessions, and time spent on the site are all sound indicators of how much the market (your customers) uses your digital products. You can think of these types of statistical measurements as being similar to foot traffic entering your physical buildings.

With websites, mobile apps, and even electronic databases, there’s a unique digital destination that’s tied to the retrieval or interaction of a library service. With social media, however, the interaction with a user is seldom initiated via a visit to the library’s Facebook page or Twitter profile. Rather, the interaction occurs through a news feed that’s embedded and streamed into the user’s personal page. As a result, there’s really not virtual foot traffic (i.e., visits) to capture; instead, there are new measuring sticks around influence and engagement that can be just as significant if not more important.

Engagement and Influence

The focus and power of social media is all about connecting and leveraging personal networks. Influence and engagement are the big yard sticks to pay attention to here, in order to gain insights into your customer’s behaviors and activities. Measurements such as “impressions” and “exposure” provide insights into your organization’s influence through the users’ subscribed media streams. These are helpful in understanding the audience’s reach for the messages (Facebook posts, tweets, etc.) that you share. Statistics such as retweets and likes provide you with insights into what customers find interesting enough to comment on and share. Engagement insights are important to pay attention to because they provide much more information than just silent foot traffic and broadcast audience potential. Engagement measures actual interactions. It’s chatter … it’s dialogue with the customer … it’s real … and it’s perhaps the most powerful digital measurement of them all.

Measuring Facebook Impact

By now many libraries have discovered Facebook and have created a presence to engage their customers within the network. There are a lot of third-party tools that you can use to gather additional analytics about your Facebook presence, but Facebook’s own Insights is the most cost-effective and perhaps the easiest tool. To access this powerful analytical tool, you must be the page administrator. The graphical interface provides an overview of engagement measures such as total likes, what people are talking about (posts they comment on and/or share) as well as details about your most popular posts. “Total reach” is an aggregate measurement of influence that includes all potential people who have viewed or interacted with any content that you’ve shared, including Facebook ads and sponsored stories. Insights also provides these types of metrics for individual posts, and it computes vitality, which in essence is the percentage of people who have seen the post and found it interesting enough to comment on or share.

Tracking Twitter Chatter

If your library has an active Twitter account and an active following, you should also be tracking your Twitter engagement. Late last year, Twitter announced that it was working on analytic tools that would soon be available as a public beta. But, as of the writing of this column, that was 10 months ago with no metrics forthcoming. So to get analytics on Twitter these days, you have to use a third-party tool. Twitonomy.com is a free analytical tool that does a nice job of providing you with a broad range of analytics related to your Twitter influence. User mentions, replies, and tweets retweeted (your tweets shared by others) demonstrate engagement with your content by your followers. Statistics such as “followers” and “listed” demonstrate your immediate reach circle of influence. The Event tool allows you to export your tweets and statics to an Excel spreadsheet so you can further massage your data on your own.

Pulling All the Channels Together

Klout.com has been getting a lot of attention these days as a nifty analytical social media aggregator. Simply sign up and provide login information for your Facebook account, Twitter feed, and other social media spaces your library may have a presence in, such as Flickr, foursquare, and Instagram. If your library’s blog is hosted by Blogger or WordPress, you can also aggregate this as well. Klout, as the name would suggest, is all about helping you understand your overall influence in your combined social media networks. The measurements here are a bit unique and take some analysis to understand, and since they’re really just an aggregate (over both a continuum of time and different networks), it’s hard to use them as a baseline to measure against. But as your library continues to explore and add more social spaces, it’s interesting to watch how your Klout scores may change. Influence measurements include true reach (the number of people you influence, both within your immediate network and across extended networks) and amplification, which is measurement of how you influence people. The tool also provides an analysis of the social media content identifying the subject and content areas that you are the most influential in (i.e., what’s stickiest across your different network of followers) and identifies your social media style. Personally, I’m identified as “specialist” with eight of my social networks aggravated. The tool captures daily activity for all of these channels and charts it like a stock portfolio. It’s an interesting tool that’s definitely worth taking a look at.

Back to Where We Started

There’s no doubt that over the past few years, social media has significantly changed the digital media landscape. What used to be a simple task of running your log files through a web analytics tool to understand the impact of your virtual foot traffic has turned a bit into a scavenger hunt to find tools and comparable metrics to better understand your organization’s reach and digital market influence. As analytical tools continue to emerge and mature for this frontier, one would hope for an improved standard for metrics that might allow for better apples-to-apples comparisons. But just as no two social network tools are alike, no two sets of measurements may be totally equivalent. Digital spaces are just as complex as our physical ones, and I guess that’s why you need so many different types of metrics to understand all the various nuances that make up the global digital topography.


Helene Blowers is the director of digital strategy for the Columbus Metropolitan Library (Ohio) and is widely known as the architect of Learning 2.0: 23 Things, an online discovery learning program that has been duplicated by more than 500 libraries and organizations in 15-plus languages worldwide. She is a 2007 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, the 2008 recipient of the LITA Hi-Tech award, and the co-author of the book Weaving a Library Web: A Guide to Developing Children’s Websites. She can be reached at helene.blowers@gmail.com.
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