What We Didn’t Learn About Social Media Relationships in 2016


I promise I’m not going to talk about social media’s impact on the election. That’s been hashed over to death in the media, and you can read all about it here, here, and here.

However, I will talk about the impact of the volume and speed with which social media invaded our society and our relationships during the past year.

Social media: big, fast, and dangerous

We’ve known for years that organizations only do business with the permission of their publics, but at no other time in history has it been so easy to revoke that permission. Just ask New Balance. Within moments of a tweet from the CEO supporting Donald Trump, people were burning their New Balances and posting the videos on social media.

Likewise the PR folks at Yuengling, who were probably celebrating a PR coup and the gazillions of impressions and placements they were scoring after their owner endorsed Donald Trump. Except that as soon as the news appeared on Twitter, fans began a boycott.

Consumer backlash and a serious impact to your bottom line now starts with a few keystrokes. What you may have thought was a brilliant campaign is just as likely to deter people from buying your product—because it isn’t eco-friendly, or it becomes the butt of a joke, or is linked to a cause people don’t believe in.

For individuals, what formerly might have been said casually in a drunken haze at a gathering, now, thanks to social media, lives on to haunt you for months. Or gets you fired, or loses you an account. In order to survive, organizations need to understand not just the volume of stuff they do and say, but the social context in which they are doing business and the nature of the relationships that are forming.

Corporate marketers have been so focused on chasing marketshare and shouting ever louder at their target audiences that they haven’t have much time for relationships. Now, in order to survive they need to pay attention, and to realize that social media is no different from any other form of human communications and relationships. It’s just bigger and faster than anything humans have ever experienced.

But to understand how to do that, and how to measure it, requires going back a bit.

Social media around the campfire

The first social networks began many millennia ago, when our ancestors would come together in annual “clan gatherings” that would bring together people from all over the territory. It was a place to find healers (an early form of WebMD), to trade gossip (Gawker, but with minstrels), and, yes, they even had their version of match.com. It was called Beltane, and if you don’t know what it is, just imagine spring break but with men and women of all ages, with the goal of getting pregnant. That’s how they kept the gene pool refreshed and healthy.

It was at these gatherings that long-lasting relationships—marriage, alliances, and friendships—were forged over shared music, food, and campfires. Not that different from reconnecting with friends from high school over Facebook.

It was pretty easy to measure the health and strength of those relationships. If the neighbors at the next campfire offered their daughter in marriage to your son, then there was a pretty high level of trust and commitment in your relationship. If they greeted you with spears, then your relationship needed work. And any marriage proposal was going to require some livestock included as part of the bargain.

Social media is social relationships

In today’s social relationships, there are equally obvious signs. You can spot an exchange relationship every time a brand says, “Like me and I’ll give you a coupon.” Which invariably ends up with a lot of likes that never engage.

On the other hand, every time someone shares a piece of your content, they are expressing a certain level of trust and/or satisfaction in what you’ve created. Unfriending, unfollowing, or unsubscribing is a pretty good indicator that the relationship is damaged and trust, commitment, or satisfaction has been lost. Given enough data, you can find all aspects of relationships in social media to one extent or another.

Ultimately organizations need to know not just what will help sell more stuff, but what may turn the market against them. I’ve seen many times that the most powerful data I can give a client is the bad news: those aspects of their relationships that are weakest.

Organizations need to understand not just whether they’re “getting exposure” but whether that exposure is positioning them as a good neighbor, a responsible business, or someone who can’t be trusted. Wells Fargo is getting lots of “impressions,” but their stock price is down 12% and the rate at which people open new checking accounts is down 30% since August. Clearly they’ve lost society’s trust. If they’d been listening more closely and measuring trust, would Wells Fargo have picked up the problems inherent in their bonus system before the regulators did?

Measuring social media relationships is vital

Analyzing social media for concepts of trust, commitment, satisfaction, and communal vs. exchange relationships should be an essential part of every organization’s performance metrics—and a key element to any reputation measurement program. Traditionally, measuring relationships has required a survey. Get a list of key stakeholders, pick the appropriate statements from the Grunig instrument, and ask them if they agree or disagree on a scale of one to seven. You’ll get an accurate gauge of the health of your relationships with the people you surveyed. That’s a key point: the people you surveyed. But you have no idea whether they’re the same ones who follow you on Twitter.

What sets today’s social relationships apart isn’t just the speed at which they are forged and broken, but the fact that the conversations are recorded. Not by traveling minstrels, but automatically, by the terabyte. And those conversations are available to anyone with a computer, an internet connection, and an API or collector.

When Natural Language Processing and machine learning invaded my business a decade ago, my business had many humans who actually sat around and read clips all day long. They’d analyze them for complicated messages and subtleties of positioning, as well as for tonality and all kinds of other things that were important to our clients. So I’ve clung to the notion that good content analysis requires humans.

It still does. But today, by combining smart humans with good data, you can in fact measure the degree to which trust, commitment, and satisfaction exist in a relationship. You can read the case study here.

The advantage of analyzing social media for relationship concepts is speed. Back in the day, when we did relationship surveys we could positively correlate higher trust and relationship scores with increased giving to our non-profit clients. Today, you can conceivably correlate the expressions of trust in social media with evidence that the person trusted the organization, e.g., subscribing to a newsletter or opening an account. By closely analyzing those expressions, organizations would know which moves were most likely to improve their relationships. Never mind that having trained humans analyze social media is still easier and cheaper than conducting a phone survey these days—and probably more reliable than a poll.

Real conversations, real relationships

Earned social media conversations can reveal a whole lot more about the health and nature of your relationships than most of the metrics that people are using. Vanity metrics have been the staple of social media measurement for years, but without close listening to the real conversations, organizations are putting themselves in jeopardy every day.

As more and more social media departments move under the umbrella of marketing, organizations forget that they really don’t have control over their marketplaces. It’s your marketplace—and the relationships you have with your networks—that control your future. ∞

(This post is adapted from a speech given to the University of Maryland Grunig Gala.)

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.