There is a lot of buzz around social media. Buzz might not even be the right word. Cacophonous roar might be more appropriate. It seems as if everyone who was a search-engine-optimization guru last year is a social media guru this year.

A lot of the talk in social media is about the concept of engaging your audience. The theory goes that if you can engage an audience via social media they’ll be that much more likely to do business with you.

But how do you really know? Wouldn’t it be great to know which kind of social media "engagements" result in closed sales vs. those that don’t? If you’re a regular reader of my column, you know where this is headed: Web analytics.

I was recently invited to a day of Web analytics presentations, and one of the presenters was the famous Avinash Kaushik (OK, OK, famous to Web analytics geeks).

His presentation was focused on multichannel marketing: driving Web traffic to offline actions and driving offline audiences to online actions. There’s a great similarity, from a Web measurement perspective, between using the Web in coordination with offline behavior and measuring social media.

The big challenge for measuring most social media is lack of data. If you don’t control the social media site or application, then you don’t know what people are looking at (what people look at tends to be a favorite piece of finding out what people find "engaging"). And unless you are closing deals directly on Facebook or Twitter, you can measure the traffic that finds its way back to your site.

Here are a few things to try that can help you measure engagement, inspired by Avinash Kaushik’s presentation at the Seminars for Success Summit 2009:

1. Vanity URLs are still worth talking about. A vanity URL is anything that’s shorter and probably more meaningful than the real link to content on your site. Use vanity URLs when handing out links on a social media site.

For example, you might have a specific property listed on your Web site and the Web address for that page is something like: http://www.yourwebsite.com/real_estate/listings/TownName/2904600/12/71973 — and that’s just a big mess (it’s half of a Twitter post). A vanity URL would be something like: http://www.yourwebsite.com/house — something short and containing a clue to where the link leads. …CONTINUED

Once you’ve set up your vanity URL and begun sharing it via social media, you can use your Web analytics package to track how many visits you get and whether visitors to that page convert. If you’re using this technique to measure social media, make sure that you only link to the vanity URL in your social media efforts. Don’t include it on your home page or navigation, etc., as it will dilute your ability to separate "normal" Web traffic from social media traffic.

Note on shortening services: While link shorteners like Bit.ly, Cli.gs and others are great and simple to use, it’s better to make short URLs based on your Web site domain (if you have the technical capability to) because the audience is more likely to remember your site and/or brand.

2. Correlate traffic patterns. This one can be a little trickier. If you know you are running a specific social media campaign over a certain length of time, or targeting an audience in a specific geographic area, you may be able to measure a change in your Web traffic in relation to the time or geography.

For example, say you are pushing a specific message via social media only to audiences in the town where you operate your real estate business (i.e. a "non-relocator" audience). First, measure a baseline of local Web traffic for a period of time before the campaign. Then run your campaign and see if there’s any lift from your local geography audience. Finally, you’ll want to measure a month or so after the campaign is complete to see if there is any lasting improvement in your Web traffic.

Remember, don’t just measure the visitor count — drill it down as deep as you can, ideally to completed lead forms. Generating a lot of traffic doesn’t result in increased revenue unless you’re selling advertising by the eyeball. If you get a lot of traffic but no lead forms filled out, then it’s time to work on site optimization (see "SEO: Beyond the 10 blue links").

3. What kind of Web behavior should you be looking for? Filling out lead forms is the obvious one. But, as everyone knows, it’s just as likely that someone will call you up. Since you’re tracking all your inbound calls, and every single time that phone rings you find out how the caller found you, that should be easy. You are doing that … right?

If you’re not diligent or consistent about asking callers where they found you, put a unique phone number on your Web site so at least you can track calls from people who found you online.

If you want to get fancy, there are services that can connect your Web analytics package to a phone number so you can track calls from your Web analytics. Neither of these options will help you know if it was social media or SEO or paid advertising that brought the caller. You still need to ask. Bummer.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt. He’s a frequent speaker on applying analytics and data to creative marketing endeavors.

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