After the closing ceremonies, the biggest headlines to come out of the Olympics were about NBC’s disastrous ratings. Not surprisingly, they blamed the decline on social media.

I can’t argue. None of the people I talked to were getting their Olympic news from their TV sets. They were streaming the events live, catching updates on Snapchat and Facebook, and, in short, consuming the Olympic content in ways and at times that worked for them. What started with time shifting and TiVO is now the new normal for how audiences are consuming content.

That’s only bad news if you define success in terms of eyeballs. Which of course is exactly how it is defined by NBC and its advertisers. But there are lots of smart marketers, even some who work for TV networks, who increasingly see engagement as equally valuable. In fact, for one client I worked with recently, we showed that higher levels of engagement (sharing, retweeting, commenting etc.) actually were driving ratings.

Impressions are no longer impressive

NPR host and media commentator Bob Garfield wrote a whole book on the declining value of eyeballs. He argues that marketers need to give up the pursuit of impressions and start worrying about the relationships they have with their audiences. When it came out in 2013, marketers were still married to impressions. But since then, reality has started to creep in. As I say, he wasn’t wrong, he was just early.

Time shifting has been bolstered by iPhone apps, Hulu, the rising cost of cable, and the declining availability of leisure time. The new reality, Mr. TV Exec and/or VP of Corporate Content Management, is that consumers aren’t gifting you with their attention on your schedule. They’re watching on buses, at work, in bed, and while standing in line at the hardware store–none of which can be translated into anything like traditional metrics.

Add to that muddled mix the question of whether anyone actually sees an ad or piece of content you post. It’s been two years since the MRC came out with its “Viewability” standards; only now are publishers starting to grok the real implications. With the increased use of ad blockers there’s a good chance that marketers are paying for a whole lot of impressions that, in fact, no one can see.

What it means for marketers

The smart marketers realize that a large percent of the dollars spent buying “impressions” may be wasted, so instead they are turning to owned content marketing, owned and paid social media, and events to make direct connections with their target audiences.

This in part explains the shift in social media responsibility out of PR and into marketing. Another consequence is an increasing willingness to experiment with new vehicles:

  • What one might consider “staid” “traditional” brands—like GE, T-Mobile, and Ralph Lauren—are all establishing major presences on platforms like Periscope and Snapchat. Some of you are probably thinking “that’s weird” right about now; however, keep in mind that all they’re doing is what smart marketing leaders have been doing for years: going where their target audiences live.
  • Brands who are experimenting with pop-up stores or putting on their own events aren’t focusing on eyeballs. They’re focusing on building relationships with the people they want to reach.
  • Organizations that are shifting budgets into community events and sponsorships may only be reaching a few hundred “eyeballs.” But they’re giving people real life experiences with their organizations and brands, which will make a much longer impact than a simple impressions, especially when they talk about it to their friends.

How you can adapt to it

1) Figure out what matters and start measuring it

First, forget likes or superficial vanity metrics. Talk to the CMO, or the CEO if you can, and find out what senior leadership expects social media to do for the business. Find out what expectations they have. If you don’t find them realistic, re-calibrate their expectations.

Now define metrics that show how you’ve delivered on those expectations. Don’t just measure a campaign; you’ll need to do A/B testing against those metrics on everything you do. You want to know what is working and what isn’t. And remember, “working” is defined by those business expectations we talked about in the prior paragraph. Don’t forget to consider the customer service benefits in your mix of results. Make sure costs are factored in to whatever metric you chose, e.g., cost per click through, cost per engagement, etc.

As part of this process, make sure you know what the benchmark is:

  • Is social media being evaluated against traditional email marketing?
  • Are you comparing paid and earned social media?
  • Is your value going to be evaluated vs. traditional display advertising?

You need to find all these answers before you start posting.

2) Experiment

Do not just pick a platform and begin posting madly. Once you’ve got solid metrics in place and understand the benchmarks, you can start experimenting with new styles, platforms, and media options. Some will succeed better than others. That’s fine. Better than fine, actually, because then you can use what succeeds and drop what doesn’t. Keep focused on continuous improvement.

3) Don’t forget to breathe

The immediacy of social media can make you frenetic in your search for content or news. So, don’t forget to take a break once a month (or at most once a quarter) and re-calibrate to make sure you’re still on goal and focused on the strategy.

4) Twice a year, do a deep dive into your analytics to see what the trends are

Things change, and you’ve got to be prepared to change with them. If more of your conversions are coming through LinkedIn, you may want to switch your emphasis away from Facebook. Don’t forget to connect with your market research and customer intelligence folks. Have the audiences and demo/psychographics of your key stakeholders changed?

When new “hot” platforms and opportunities emerge, make sure they go through the same vetting process that you’ve just been through. ∞

Note: This piece originally appeared as a free article in the early September 2016 edition of The Measurement Advisor newsletter. For complete access to all articles, click here for a free 30-day trial.

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