What Studying Your Links Can Teach You About Your Marketing

The Media You Don't Buy Is Becoming More Measurable

By Published on .

Taddy Hall
Taddy Hall
On a recent Delta Air Lines trip, our flight attendant made the standard slog down the aisle with a basket of chips, cookies and candies with a pitch that was anything but routine: "Junk food?" she offered cheerfully. Made me laugh and then think: Her pitch is a walking parable for the social economy. Where brand fictions have nowhere to hide, consumers define the message. And the social graph (or in this case the economy section of Flight 2141) is the medium.

Let's face it: The media that marketers buy is often less important than the media that consumers create. The success of a marketing message or a brand idea is less a function of program audience (or gross ratings points) and more determined by the power of social graphs.

In the social realm, the pipes of distribution are not massive but they are many. The new pipes are e-mail, IM, sharing widgets, blogs, forums, posts and tweets. They are all the places where I, the consumer, take your content, Mrs. Brand Manager, and do whatever I please with it.

That's a huge fundamental difference -- it means relevant, engaging, useful content finds me as it's edited, selected and distributed by my social graph, or "curated," in the social-media idiom. Historically static content is now on the fly and I, the consumer, have become the aggregation point.

One way to visualize this phenomenon is the way social media disintermediates traditional portals. My "home page" is now a "stream" of relevant and personalized content that is constantly updated in real time in various places: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, my e-mail account, instant messenger, etc.

While verticals and brands vary, upward of 20% of traffic to many websites now arrives via shared link, and this traffic is growing and valuable. Indeed, the shared link is emerging as the essential unit of measure, the increasingly relevant currency.

While marketers have an intuitive sense for the power of sharing, too often they force the "new" to conform to existing models and processes. This "cramming" is a whole lot easier than "changing," but it delivers suboptimal results. Cramming is when Facebook, for example, is reduced to just another media outlet for buying ads and targeting an audience. That's not social media, though, it's network TV.

The winners will be those disruptive innovators who exploit the powerful differences of social media rather than force-fit social media into a traditional model.

In the interest of tapping the full promise social media, the significance of measuring and analyzing shared links is hard to overstate. As Wayne Arnold wrote here last June, "What is important now is the concept of being the most-linked brand." Shared links:

  • Point toward most-valuable (and most influential) individuals by locating the "power sharers" and true brand advocates.
  • Identify the content that most engages distinct customer segments by measuring the "most shared" pieces of content.
  • Reveal the channels (such as e-mail, IM and Twitter), online communities (such as Facebook and You Tube), blogs, fan sites, and forums where influence occurs most.
This information can be used to inform ad buying and media planning functions; directing outbound; focus social marketing activities (such as where to engage and what to say); optimize creative, offers and content management; enable full accounting of paid media campaigns (by factoring the impact of free/"earned" impressions); and empower -- when made measureable -- entirely new forms of campaigns based on free consumer sharing rather than paid marketer broadcasting.

The shared link story gets even more interesting when you factor in conversion-rate differentials. As it turns out (according to multiple studies by Razorfish, DM News, and my company, Meteor Solutions, among others) site visitors arriving via shared links have a conversion rate two to four times other traffic sources (where "conversion" is whatever action the site owner decides, be it a purchase, download, registration, other).

It's early days, but the opportunity to capture the full value of social media is real and present. Mapping the social graph in the context of a brand, website, or campaign is foundational and essential and can deliver insight into who are your most influential brand advocates, what kind of content they are sharing to drive viral traffic and where the sharing activity is occurring.

With this knowledge in hand -- and tracked in real-time -- marketers will be better positioned to do what consumers have already done: harness the unique features of social media to achieve fundamental and enduring objectives.

Taddy Hall is the chief operations officer for Seattle-based Meteor Solutions, which helps marketers measure, manage and monetize online earned media. Prior to that he served as chief strategy officer for the Advertising Research Foundation.
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