Neither I nor anyone else outside of the metrics companies has access to the algorithms, so we can't say for certain that mass reach is the most important factor being measured. But clearly there is a correlation. If people mention you online at a rate greater than you are posting, and what you say online is widely shared, your social influence scores are higher.
If this premise is true, we are essentially measuring the same things we always have in broadcast and print advertising. Traditionally, you promote something as heavily as you can, whether it's an idea or a fully produced ad. You seed your message everywhere. You try to frame a conversation around the brand. Then you measure the buzz (mentions) and/or interactions (sales) that come from it.
Despite all the rhetoric of how social media is all about creating relationships with our customers, the most valuable metric to brands seems to still be, "How many people are talking about us?" We aren't valuing conversations. We are valuing reach and frequency.
There is nothing wrong with mass reach, of course. It's perfectly acceptable to use Twitter, Facebook, your blog and your YouTube page to generate a large audience of engaged viewers. It's why TV, radio, print and direct mail work. We create an audience and we market to it. The question, though, is whether conversation is still important and, if so, are we missing a huge component in the evaluation of overall social marketing effectiveness?
As it stands, we tally up the things that are easy. "Likes" and "re-tweets" and "+1s" and mentions and "followers" are simple results to count and evaluate. But they don't measure the quality of the interaction or the friendship that might be developing. They offer no picture of whether a person is recommending you out of practicality or out of real, heart-felt affinity and love of your product. At best, we get flawed impressions of advocacy because the measures strip away everything that social is supposed to be good at and reduce it to an aggregate of mass behavioral metrics.
If social-media marketing is distinguished by conversation and real relationships, we need measures that weigh these factors. We need tools similar to those used in customer service. We should be surveying our audience of followers and friends randomly and asking questions about feelings toward the brand. We need qualitative interviewing to learn why customers are behaving as they are. We should be delving into sample communities to learn the real sentiments toward us being expressed and who the influential players really are. And we need to be measuring the spectrum of customer activity with the brand -- from interest to purchase to advocacy -- to understand what value our social media activity is creating at each stage of the customer lifecycle. Until we do all of this, conversation with our customers is merely creating a nebulous good feeling with no clear value.
It's time to stop assuming the advantages of one-on-one relationships with customers and then measure the sum of our effectiveness based on impersonal reach and frequency tactics. We're either broadcasting and publishing, as always, or we're having a conversation. Both are good. But it's time to stop confusing them with each other.