Is Social ROI a Lie? Why Social Audience Measurement Hasn’t Yet Delivered

By Michael Hussey, CEO of PeekYou

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” is a French proverb that pretty much sums up the world we live in—especially from a tech perspective. “The more things change, the more they stay the same” can be applied to the world of social media in so many ways: We still communicate—just differently; we still market—just through newer outlets; we still rely on word of mouth—wait, that one never changed! But this little truism really reverberates when talking about Audience Monitoring and Measurement.

Arthur C. Nielsen was, like many of you, on top of new technologies, and with the advent of the broadcasting industry, his company soon began monitoring radio audiences, and then television. Audience measurement was born. And it didn’t take long before audience measurement got its first kick in the pants. By 1963, Congressional Hearings studying ratings and their influence upon TV programming heaped criticism on the ratings industry, the tools and technology being used for data gathering, and—importantly—on the reliability of audience measurement surveys.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Audience measurement continues to get kicked in the pants today. Especially when it comes to social. Social Audience Measurement was heralded as the next big shiny thing for marketers, promising rivers of psychographic and demographic data and close interaction with consumers. But it hasn’t really delivered, and the actual execution of leveraging social data has been somewhat disappointing.

Just as Nielsen was criticized because the increased number of radio stations on the dial made it difficult for his Audimeter listening device to distinguish among them, so too are marketers experiencing an unprecedented deluge of data and information.

They’re getting a lot of that information from measuring single platform activity, Twitter, Facebook, etc. But don’t forget, even Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admitted recently that on average a staggering 40% of active Twitter users don’t tweet. Think about that. Nearly half of all Twitter users are passive. They’re not retweeting, sharing or mentioning your brand, but they’re watching and listening to you. Standard engagement and activity metrics are not going to pick them up. So who are they? How do you distinguish between your active and passive community members? Who’s really following you? Think about that. Right now, you potentially don’t know nearly half your audience. Toss in an increase in spam, which “games” user statistics, and single scoring metrics like Klout, and you get the same issues that Nielsen faced and was soundly criticized for. Lots of white noise, and an incomplete picture of the consumer and the larger audience.

The Power Of Relevancy

Yahoo! and Innerscope Research partnered up last April for a revealing research study. Using biometric and eye-tracking measures, they examined emotional and cognitive responses of people to online advertising. Not surprisingly, they found that people spend 25% more time fixating on ads that are personally relevant to them. In fact, pupil dilation increased by 27%, which means that people—potential consumers—are processing and remembering the key messages to a greater extent. And contextually relevant ads triggered emotional response two times higher than those without.

So, what does that mean for marketers? It means that:

• Personal relevance increases cognitive engagement among consumers.
• Contextual relevance can help build long-term memory of the brand.
• And if you want to emotionally and cognitively connect with a consumer at the highest level, contextual and personal relevance combined tend to deliver stronger responses than each on its own.

Science proves that knowing WHO you are selling to, demographically, beyond tweets and shares, has a real visceral impact on the consumer. In other words, if you’re setting up a strategic marketing plan for your organization, it behooves you to seriously deep dive into and know your true audience.

Listen In or Lose Out

Social media monitoring platforms have become fairly common, and they play an important role in every aspect of marketing, sales, customer service and community growth. That said, customers are individuals. And superior customer service is becoming the thing that separates the men from the boys in organizations large and small. So how do you scale the social web to ensure better results and a more ‘human’ response that reflects the people who make up your community? You know them.

A recent report revealed that while CMOs are realizing that social is a key channel for engagement, they’re still turning a blind eye to a key ingredient. Listening. Only a quarter of the survey group were actively tracking blogs and roughly half were paying attention to online reviews of their brand or corporation. It’s no surprise given those stats that when asked, they were quick to note that “expressing ROI on social media is difficult” and that “developing their skills and understanding of social media was low priority.”

And that is wrong on so many levels. The fact is that social has fundamentally changed consumer spending decision-making. Here’s a stat that should give you pause. On average, 89% of people look online before making a purchase decision. And they’re not looking to hear corporate speak or company platitudes. They are looking for word of mouth recommendations from friends and family. People just like them. Trust is a powerful commodity these days. Social pull. Online and off.

Audience Measurement is the New Clout

Where social audience measurement has failed, social pull delivers the goods. A user’s real, measurable social pull is a reflection of their reputation—online and off—as well as a barometer of their social trust. PeekYou picks up what traditional social measurement cannot. The silent majority. The quiet influencers. The people who only speak when they have something important to say. Enigmatic engagers who are still on your web sites, watching your ads, and spending money on your brands. PeekAnalytics’ is able to measure the digital footprint of active and passive brand followers across 60 social sites and millions of blogs to provide accurate, data-driven insights, as well as important demographic information such as age, social membership, interests, etc. The type of information that will allow marketers to create and target contextual ads and campaigns to their opt-in audience.

We learned above that contextually relevant, personally targeted marketing campaigns evoke deeper emotional response in consumers, but knowing the scope of your broader audience can also deliver other actionable results, depending on your position in the marketplace:

• Publishers – Determine audience, content deliverables, reach.
• Brands – Create/share targeted content, measure campaign success.
• Influencers – Prove and validate real audience worth to potential clients.
• Media buyers – Understand audience, know where to buy and why.

Technology rules our lives in ways Nielsen would never have thought possible. But even then, he recognized the power of measuring what people do. What the individual wants. And where they were “looking.” Today, they’re looking—and communicating—online. Mobile devices are on pace to outsell PCs by 2012. Seventy-eight percent of Americans are on the Internet. And they spend nearly a quarter of that time using social media. Social media measurement is evolving and maturing, and marketers are starting to see the bigger picture of how, and what, they should be measuring. Your online audience is made up of people. Some will be obvious and active engagers. But just as many—if not more—will be passive.


Michael Hussey is a social media expert and technology entrepreneur who has created some of the most popular websites and hottest online trends. He is the founder of @PeekYou (9.5mm monthly visits), @PeekAnalytics, @RateMyTeachers, @RateMyProfessor, @StudyBreaker.



  1. Andy DeBrunner on March 21, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    I generally liked a lot of what you said in the article, but I take issue with your headline. There is a huge difference between audience measurement, which your article focuses on, and ROI. While audience measurement may be elusive, ROI doesn’t always have to be. Even if you’re unwittingly missing 90% of your audience, you could still see incredible ROI from social media efforts. It just takes a little planning so you’re capturing the right data. Once you have the data gathering in place, the rest is simple math. I’ve actually written about the relative simplicity of calculating social media ROI on my company’s blog. There’s a link to it below if you feel like checking it out.

    Anyway, I agree with your point that companies need evangelists to represent them online, regardless of how they identify the proper forum to evangelize. That is going to be more and more important as time goes by.

    My post about calculating ROI:

  2. Brian Pittman on March 21, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Hi Andy,
    I’ll take the blame for that headline … Michael’s was much more on-point and didn’t directly reference ROI. I made a leap that wasn’t there! ^brianp (editor of site)

    • Andy DeBrunner on March 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm

      Appreciate the mea culpa :)