4 Tips for Measuring Social Media: It's Not All About The Numbers

In 2006 the responsibility of Southwest Airlines' social media efforts fell into my lap. I knew nothing about social media at the time - I didn't read blogs, Twitter didn't even exist, and I playfully mocked a couple of ex-boyfriends who were on MySpace. But, with my new assignment, I had no choice but to make it part of my life. So I did the only reasonable thing. I locked myself in my office every night with a bottle of wine and tried to figure it out. And, like my first Phish concert, I discovered an amazing world that I hadn't previously known existed.

Everyday provided a new lesson and a new challenge. And, my experiences forced me to completely rethink corporate communications. More than blogging, Tweeting, or Facebooking, my role, as I saw it, was to slash through red tape and revolutionize the business of communication; to tear down old infrastructure to meet the needs of the changing environment.

It was clear that in order to do social media successfully, we needed more...well...everything. We needed more information. And, we needed to receive it faster. We needed more eyes and ears. And, we needed people who knew our company inside and out. We needed new reporting structures, approval processes and more agile response teams. We needed people to push the envelope and take risks. And, we needed to invest money where there was no proven ROI.

Measurement and reporting were among our most powerful tools in justifying our needs - but even for a company that completely bought in to social media, changing minds wasn't always that easy. Consider this:

In July 2007, Southwest Airlines joined Twitter. Shortly thereafter we began sourcecoding all of our links. Then, sometime in 2008, something amazing happened. My colleague Christi Day (who now leads Southwest's social media efforts) came into my office to tell me that seven people had clicked from Twitter to southwest.com and made a purchase that week. A whopping seven! We went completely nuts. I started spinning around in my chair while Christi did high kicks in the doorway.

We were completely deflated, however, when one of our colleagues suggested we not report our findings because the number "was so small." Technically, she was right. Relative to the millions of people that book their travel on southwest.com each year, seven didn't sound very impressive. But where she saw something small, we saw something huge... potential.

Less than a year later, Southwest launched a 48-hour fare sale using nothing more than social media and public relations to promote it - no paid advertising - and achieved its top two sales and web site traffic days in the airlines' 38 year history. If anyone thought it was an anomaly, three months later, they did it again.

The challenge

Anyone who works in social media sees its power and possibility every day. The ultimate challenge is finding ways to convince our peers and leaders that some things are going to have to change if we want our organizations to evolve and adapt to the new environment.

During my time at Southwest Airlines, we had a number of measurement tools at our disposal; but charts, graphs, and numbers alone weren't going to inspire the change. So when measuring and preparing our social media reports, we always tried to answer the following questions:

1. What are the numbers trying to tell us?

When we began our social media efforts, the numbers really weren't that impressive. We didn't yet have much traffic to our blog. Our Twitter and Facebook followings were still relatively small. So we tried to read between the numbers to spot trends and "ah-ha moments." For us, reporting social media was like reporting the weather. The question wasn't "what were the numbers yesterday?" but rather "what are they going to be tomorrow?"

2. What are we trying to prove?

The answer to this question changed over time, and our reports had to change with it. For example, when we began using social media there was still this myth that bloggers were all 17-year-olds in their mothers' basements. Our challenge, at that time, was simply to prove that these folks were credible journalists worthy of our time and attention. Our early social media reports read like biographies.

3. What should we be doing differently?

Our biggest failures were always our biggest learning experiences, but in order to inspire organizational change, we had to make sure that everyone else was learning from them as well. With each misstep, we would document exactly what had happened: what went wrong, how it could have been prevented, what infrastructure changes were needed, and how we planned to address similar situations in the future.

4. Who cares?

Ultimately, our reports were more for us than anyone else. And, we quickly learned that if we weren't dazzled by them, no one else was going to be dazzled either. Our challenge was not just to tell the story, but to sell the story by bringing the information to life and presenting it in a way that made jaws drop.

Old habits die hard. And slashing through corporate red tape takes time and resolve. Four years in, and I still find myself trying to convince people of things that seem so obvious to those of us who live and breathe social media every day. Sometimes I win. Sometimes I lose. But it's worth the fight. And, those occasional victories are among my proudest accomplishments.