What’s your social network really worth?

Extend your reach by knowing and growing network value

For an internal project I’m working on, I’ve spent the last week calculating my reach and the value of my network.

This is something I’ve done many times for clients, as a way to discover if various aspects of social marketing are "working" or not.

It’s not a "one metric to rule them all" sort of thing though, and should be taken in context with qualitative gains. But it is a worthwhile exercise to perform now and then — taking a snapshot of what your social network is really like.

It isn’t terribly painful but it does require a bit of thinking. Here are some some step-by-step instructions.

Establish what you mean by "worth" or "value."

Many marketers will wimp out at this point and attempt to deflect responsibility by saying inane and unhelpful things like, "What’s the value of your mother?" Don’t wimp out here though. If you want to wimp out, wimp out later.

There are so many great ways to establish "worth" and "value." If you don’t take a moment to do so, then you are starting out on the wrong foot, admitting that your efforts are "worthless" and that you lack "values."

Here are a couple of ways to establish worth and values that tend to work. Tweak to reflect your own sensibilities.

What would it cost you to reach people?

You can establish value by determining what would it cost to reach a similar audience in a sort of similar way. This number can come from the advertising department of a newspaper or magazine. This number can come from the cost it would take to reach someone with a postcard. Or it could come from the cost for television ads or live event management. Whenever possible, it’s best to use real numbers — not someone’s guess.

Ask what value each audience brings to your business

If you already have some experience marketing to a particular audience, then hopefully you have a little bit of data on how much business that audience has brought to you. Comparing this with the total population you marketed to and averaging out starts to get you a bit of a "return on audience" number. You can use this for value or worth as well.

Like I said, the temptation will be great to wimp out here and start talking about how valuable your mother is. That’s nice if your market is your mother. But otherwise you might want to get more relevant benchmarks. Use numbers. Use dollars. Be ruthless.

Maybe on a separate sheet of paper, go ahead and list all the intangible, motherly things that are full of "value and worth" about various audiences. These are real people after all. And the qualitative stuff should be noted as well.

Just don’t try to mix it up with the dollar stuff, or you’ll end up throwing your hands in the air and becoming a social media guru.

Measure your raw audience numbers

Now that you have a sense of value to apply to an audience, it’s time to figure out what sort of audience you have.

Make a list of every channel in which you participate. Don’t get hung up on the fact that individual audience members may overlap. Someone may be subscribed to your blog, and also following you on Facebook, for example. You’re making an index, and the end result is going to be personal for your business — not someone else’s.

Don’t forget anything here, or leave it out, just because you don’t like this channel or that channel. List everything for which you can get any kind of measure.

Cull for quality

Some networks give you some sort of estimation for how lively your audience is. Others don’t. If you have no idea if you are actually reaching anyone through a network, put an asterisk next to that network’s name. Those networks are still important, but the asterisk will remind you that every single audience member could be a robot or a zombie.

For the networks that do give you a sense of whether your audience members are people or not, record the percentage of suspected real people. Keep in mind that some networks and services will report on suspected fake people. You can report it in the negative if you like.

The main thing is to keep whatever metric you use in this column consistent: percent of assumed real people OR percent of assumed fake people. Don’t mix and match because that just makes life harder for no reason.

Some examples for these kinds of measures would be: Facebook "engagement" rates, Twitter "active follower" rates, email open rates, percentage of people who stay on your website for more than 10 seconds (or whatever amount of time you want to use to determine a real person), listing impressions, and so on. You may need to use a third-party tool to get something useful.

What you have left after this culling is probably about as close to your actual reach, by channel or method, as you can get without making a major project of it.

Match value and worth to channel

Taking the value and worth stuff you came up with at the beginning, match those values to the channels they are most like.

Don’t, for example, match the value of a television viewer to a Twitter follower. Match like media with like media, like prominence with like prominence. This will probably take a little bit of thought. It’s wise to include someone else who knows you and your business to bounce ideas off of.

This is much easier and more accurate if you have a little bit of historical data. But as long as you document your method, and your numbers are real, you’ll have something you understand and can use.

Your network value

Multiply your real audience with your matched channel values and there’s your channel value index. Add it all together and there’s your network value index.

Now what?

If you do this exercise every now and then, even if it’s just quarterly, you’ll get a sense of whether you’re actually growing your network value or not.

You’ll also have a regular idea of what kind of culling is occurring in each channel — something you can use to recognize shifts in the way people are using different tools and networks.

You may discover, by developing these comparisons, that your audience is easier to reach through simple advertising. Or you may discover that a network you thought wasn’t worth paying attention to is actually worth exploring a bit deeper.

You can — and probably should — get a little deeper in how you measure your audience. Even more importantly, you can get deeper in how you align your measures with your sense of value and worth. This sort of thing will be individual to every business.

But the basic format remains: Identify it, add it all up, put it in context, make some decisions about improvement, and then execute on those decisions.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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