The Hierarchy of Social Marketing InteractionSocial marketing has become an integral part of the marketing portfolio ... at least in theory. One of the biggest challenges social marketing faces is the remaining confusion on which metrics are truly important for marketing success and which are more decorative in nature.

Luckily, we have 20 plus years of experience in seeing what works and what doesn't in the social world. (Yes, 20 plus years. If people tell you that social media is new, it's only because they weren't using proto-social tools such as Internet Relay Chat where hashtags originated from or community groups such as USENET with its metadata and language-structured communities.) In general, social interaction and sentiment are defined by the level of effort that somebody else puts into speaking with you. If you only need one click, that is a weak interaction by default. If somebody actually writes back to you, they have put time and energy into thinking about your social posts.

In this context, it becomes easier to understand which metrics truly matter in a world where marketing is no longer just about simple brand impressions, but focused on the educational journey of the potential buyer and the personalized relationship that companies seek with each customer.

To get a better idea of what actually works in the social marketing world, here are the key metrics that you need to track in the social world from least important to most important:


People get very caught up in the pure number of followers associated with a particular account or social group on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, Google plus and other networks, but the number of followers you have is probably the least important number. There is a critical mass of users that you need to have in place, but this critical mass is lower than you may think. It may be possible to run a very valuable social network with only a few hundred followers as long as there is good mutual interaction and education achieved through being social.

The flip side is that companies with tens of thousands of followers may actually have very poor social marketing capabilities if they acquired these followers through a one-time event (such as a contest or --even worse -- a purchase of users and followers) and then never successfully followed up with an ongoing dialogue. Or the brand or individual itself may already be famous and the social followers represent the success of legacy branding and loyalty efforts rather than the added value that social media can provide. These "followers" represent a single click on your account and are a starting point. They represent the potential of your social accounts, but do not represent the successful use of social media in and of themselves.

2. Likes and Favorites

Everybody likes to be liked and favorited. How can you not? Sally Field's admission that "you like me, right now, you like me!" still resonates. But these likes and favorites similarly only represent a single click and a one time recognition of a specific social event. Individuals that provide multiple likes and favorites over time represent potential allies, partners, brand advocates or customers, but individual likes and favorites often simply reflect that a specific message has resonated. This is great, unless this message does not align with your own core products and services.

If you can't follow up an initial message with a second message that also attracts significant numbers of likes and favorites, you end up being a one tweet wonder. And if your messages end up not being aligned with your services, you end up creating a marketing channel that does not lead to ongoing sales or loyalty. So, likes and favorites are useful, but only when they are aligned to your company's messaging and when they are repeatable.

3. Shares and Retweets

Once people share your thoughts and insights with other people, the value of social comes into place. These shares are often still just one click, but these clicks are now expanding the reach of your actual message. From a social perspective, shares and retweets should be the minimum threshold of metrics that matter since these behaviors actually expand the scope of your brand rather than simply verify individual impressions and preferences.

4. Click Throughs

In the web-based world, click throughs and conversions are treated as the end-all and be-all of interaction to drive consumers to an end goal. Although this works in a process-driven world, the end result of social media is not a website visit, but a conversation. Because of this, click throughs are definitely helpful in creating a revenue-creating transaction, but they do not define friendships and alliances.

In addition, click throughs can be misleading measures of interest because of the tricks that we've learned to "click bait" an audience into looking at website content. If you're using inspirational messages or phrases such as "You will never believe what we found out!" to lure people to come to your website, you're going to have a classic garbage-in, garbage-out scenario. You started with a garbage social introduction and you will receive a garbage social response. And, in reality, a user only needs to make one click to go through, so that is still a non-verbal commitment that requires no use of language or effort other than basic curiosity. So, because click throughs can only reflect a single interaction and can be "gamified" by eliciting reactions, they're not the most prized result for social interaction.

5. Mentions

Now we're getting somewhere. When a user will go out of their way to pass your name on to their network, this is an important step in truly becoming social. At this point, you have said something important enough to be shared with another group of people or you are being associated with other key influencers. And to be mentioned, someone needs to actually spend the time to remember your name and type it out. As simple as that sounds, that is more effort than it takes to follow, like, share or click, all of which are literally one-click actions. This is why a mention ends up being more important; it demonstrates that your name is on someone's mind and that this person or company is actively following you.

6. Comments or Replies

When you consider personal interactions, nothing gets more personal than an actual reply or comment. Assuming that you have an actual reply and not spam, a reply means that someone has read through your original message and has a response that they want to share. Your respondent actually cared enough to write a new comment or reply. Your idea was important enough to start an actual conversation that is important enough to share with an audience. If done right, this is the opportunity to start a real conversation, whether by moving to private message, chat, text, Skype or a good old-fashioned phone call. Assuming that you're trying to both educate and know your customers, this is the end game in social.

But, of course, just because you've started a conversation online doesn't mean that you suddenly have a customer for life. In social media, you have the opportunity to find angry or dissatisfied customers and change them around for the better. But this requires a rapid response and escalation team. This doesn't mean that you need to have a regiment of rapid responders available at any given time, but that you, yourself, should be ready and empowered to make an actual difference for someone on social media if you have the chance.

This leads to the biggest mistake that typically occurs on social media: a company sets up social media, monitors it and finds an opportunity to help. But at that key interaction point, social media is being handled by an intern or low-level employee who can only redirect the interaction. At that point, your social media intern is the equivalent of the phone rep who puts a customer on hold whereas a professional employee on social media will be able to take the next step in engagement. This is where the higher levels of social interaction differ from lower levels. Levels 1 - 4 are basically clicks that can be measured and quantified, but they represent application transactions. Although social accounts sticking to these lower levels of social interaction can grow to be quite large, they will lack the loyalty and relationships that social media can bring to a marketing program. Levels 5 and 6 actually represent human interaction and expertise where relationships can start to be won or lost.

As you start to measure social media and social marketing initiatives, keep this hierarchy in mind. Social interaction is not the same as website interaction; social provides additional opportunities for prepared companies that are both ready and willing to interact with their audiences. By prioritizing interactions correctly, a social media account with a few hundred followers can end up providing more value and conversations than a social media account with tens of thousands of followers. And at the end of the day, building real conversations and loyalty is what social is really about.

Title image by Gil C /