How do you measure success when you work in social media? There’s no one-size fits all answer here but it’s a question social media managers get asked all the time, under increasing pressure to prove the worth of their activity (Michaelidou et al, 2011).
When I started a pilot on The Open University’s Instagram account last October, I didn’t set any expectations down on paper in terms of numbers for followers, likes or comments. The success wasn’t about the account, so much as the pilot and what I learned from it – which turns out to be enough to write a 24,000 word eBook on it.
But in my head, I thought it would be easy to push up follower numbers from a tame 8,500 in comparison to the university’s 150,000 students and many more alumni. One of my managers jokingly (I think) suggested 100,000 followers by Christmas. The truth is the account has grown by 1,900 followers in six months. And you know what, that’s not bad. But what’s better is that likes per post has shot up from an average of 10 per post to around 100 per post – that’s an increase of 90%. We’re sustaining this level of engagement per post – and continuing to post daily – and have a genuine and engaged community that we know quite a lot about. Knowing our community, talking to them and sharing their photos holds more value than numbers because it allows us to post the right content, follow up on student stories and use Instagram content on other channels.
What I could have done differently is whip out some cash and pay to push those follower numbers up, but could I have claimed those numbers in the same way I know those 2,500 extra followers are entirely mine? Tools like Instagress, a paid-for bot which tracks chosen hashtags and likes, comments and follows relevant people and posts 24/7, can drive up engagement and artificially inflate follower count. The number of resulting followers might look great, but engagement compared to followers will be lower because your followers are not genuine. And what’s better, to have hundreds of thousands of followers or a high engagement rate on individual posts from real members of your community. For me, it’s the latter. Interestingly, at the time of writing this Instagress has been shut down “at the request of” Instagram, a brand which fosters the value of genuine community spirit.
What could success look like?
Increasing your professional profile could be a measure of success (although this anti-Instagramming academic disagrees) and I think there’s immeasureable value in putting your research ‘out there’ for others to engage with. And social media is a great way of doing that, Instagram in particular if you can show your research visually. Better still if your research is about Instagram and I’ve tried to breakdown the key elements of my eBook using Instagram to do it. I’ve had feedback on Twitter from people following my #InstaMA research saying it’s been useful to them and it’s certainly helped my own professional profile to be able to talk about this project, increasing my own social media following and helping me to get a speaker’s slot at the forthcoming ContentEd Conference in June.
Just as we (used to) measure traditional print media press coverage by column inches in PR campaigns, which is hard to put a value on, it’s equally hard to put a value on social media metrics – what these numbers mean is all relative to what you’re trying to achieve and raising brand awareness will always be tricky to pin down. For me, above and beyond numbers, the most valuable part of the pilot was the amount I learned about Instagram and our community.
Much of what I’ve learned about Instagram stats has been holistic because I entered this project alone and spent the best part of six months fully immersed in the channel. So I got a real sense of the amount of engagement and increase in likes per post, and the use of the hashtag #openuniversity just by being on the site every day. This knowledge will thin out once the work is divided by fellow members of the social media team post-pilot.
There’s a chapter in my eBook on measurement, including using Instagram Insights, but it also focusses on other kinds of measurement.
Measurement doesn’t need to be about numbers
Success criteria or targets don’t have to be numbers based. Pre-pilot we didn’t monitor comments, like anyone’s photos or comment on anything. We posted and then ran. Broadcast, broadcast, broadcast. For me, the fact that I’ve been able to monitor and actively engage with our Instagram community on a pretty much daily basis is a personal and professional success, and a highly beneficial one. The bank of knowledge I’ve built up just from immersing myself in Instagram is invaluable. So daily posting, monitoring and responding to comments could be a success criteria.
Measurement doesn’t have to relate to channel stats either, like the number of posts on Instagram; it could be linked to work-based objectives. Measurement could relate to types of content, for example, you want to profile 12 academics in 12 months to help boost their public profiles and raise awareness of academic excellence and research. Or one post per week that relates to careers and employability, two shares per week and a campaign per quarter. Or it could be related to your own personal professional objectives like becoming a channel expert, developing professional photography skills or even educating the wider team: running workshops on mobile content, embedding best-practice and planning tools into the team’s daily way of working. Find a measurement that means something to you.
Based on my own experience of running a pilot, the successes for me run way beyond numbers and Instagram expertise. I’ve made new personal and professional contacts, I’m a step closer to completing my Masters degree, I have a more rounded view of creating compelling content for multiple channels and I have a clearer picture about what the future of social media looks like for the OU and how different channels appeal to difference audiences in different ways.