This is my article as it was published in New Media Age yesterday:

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations Social Media Panel launched a Measurement Group last month to help practitioners navigate what is a rapidly developing and increasingly confusing area, writes Philip Sheldrake.

As I commented in the Social Web Analytics eBook in 2008:

If you could go back to the mid-1990s and offer a marketer a little box that would sit on their desk, let them listen in on thousands of customer conversations and participate in those discussions regardless of geography or time zone, it would appear so far-fetched that they’d probably call security.

And yet here we are, with somewhere upward of 200 services vying to be our eyes and ears on the social web. Social analytics is a growth market reminiscent of web analytics ten years ago, with all the potential and confusion that comparison implies. The market is just beginning to demand that some order, consistency and semblance of maturity is brought to bear, and the three big asks are:

  • Can we begin to use the same terminology, please?
  • What is it we should be measuring exactly?
  • And can we close the gap between the PR profession’s and analytics vendor’s understanding of each other’s worlds?

The Web Analytics Association worked very hard a decade ago to normalise the terms employed by the explosion of web analytics vendors so that one service could be compared with another. The same progress is required now of social analytics vendors, although some of the concepts are much harder to pin down this time.

Let me give you an example, one that underlines the challenge when compared to, say, a common definition in web analytics of average time on site (ATOS), namely influence. Someone has been influenced when they think in a way they wouldn’t otherwise have thought or do something they wouldn’t otherwise have done. But not according to the social analytics vendors, who push influencer-centric over influence-centric definitions.

But influence isn’t some invented quantity that rolls up a number of indices and measures into a relatively arbitrary compound formula, making any appreciation of the underlying approach opaque to the end user (but in such a way that it can then be packaged and sold as ’unique’). We need to measure stuff because we should, not just because we can. Yet it’s easy to be susceptible to some of this faux holy grail stuff and we need to take a closer look at what’s on offer.

In fact, I believe PR professionals are better off just doing good work that aligns with the tenets of books such as The New Rules of Marketing and PR and Engage!, than waste time slaving to specious measures. Everyone should employ one and preferably more social analytics services. These should be incorporated into the workflow of your team (because this isn’t just about listening, it’s about conversation) and not relegated to the intern’s desk.

Then you’ll be best placed to take advantage of its capabilities today, rising above its current flaws, and be ready to move up with the market as it matures this decade.