[This post is a continuation of “Why ‘Engaging the Conversation' Might be a Waste of Time“. This article will make more sense if you read that one first.]
Wow. Seems like we've hit a nerve. Dan Zarrella's assertion that engaging in the social media conversation is a waste of time changed the way I approach relational media. Others agreed and others dissented. Either way, this growing field of online communication is still in its infancy, with a lot still to be discovered.
Has anyone perfected it yet? Hardly. We're all still looking for the answers. But given my own personal experience, along with the stories of others, coupled with Dan Zarrella's information and data, we could be looking at an emerging methodology that has significant traction: Engaging the conversation online does not work.
For over a year, I've been on a quest to find solid evidence for what works in social media for non-profits, churches and ministries. At Monk, we've just recently come into some data that's showing us what works and what doesn't. Our findings are still pretty raw, but they seem to support what Zarrella is saying.
For instance, we asked, “In creating awareness for your organization, what is least effective in your social media strategy?” The top two answers were:
- Engaging a broad, public audience
- Monitoring online discussions about our organization
Does that sound familiar? To put flesh to that, the churches and ministries we polled said that casting the social media net wide didn't work for creating awareness. Lots of exposure wasn't necessarily a good thing. Neither was tracking down and engaging in the conversation about what people were saying about their organization online. It just didn't work. (I'm not here to judge, just to present the data!)
What was effective in creating awareness? Again, to support Zarrella's findings, generating content worked. More specifically, the top two responses to “What is most effective in engaging your online community?” were:
- Frequently updating our content
- Including a variety of communication types (i.e. multimedia, curated content, extraneous information, etc.)
No mention of “engaging the conversation.” In fact, throughout our survey, we found that “knowing social media etiquette” and not “barging in” to online conversations was a recurring theme.
But What About Relationships?
Objections to this new trend of not engaging the conversation are varied, but they usually center around one theme:
What if engaging the conversation is the main goal of your social media strategy? What do we do then? What do we do if, by the very nature of our organization, our goal is to engage people relationally? Conversations can't be measured like widgets being purchased. Relationships are messy and thereby difficult to track and measure.
I can see the merit of the objection. Truly. If you use social media in your organization to build relationships online, one could see how this data would cause consternation. It's a classic case of “What we thought worked doesn't actually work” syndrome. We all have to change our thinking at times, right?
At this point, I think it's important to differentiate between being a social organization and measuring social media effectiveness. An organization can (and must, I would argue) be social in the new 21st century. An organization must proactively set up outposts on blogs and social networks like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn and Vimeo. Simply put, if you don't incorporate this into your organizational strategy, you'll be left in the dust of those who are.
But this is very different from using that sociability as a metric for how effective they are as an organization. This was Zarrella's original point. Conversation online ≠ success as an entity. We may believe it does. We may even want it to. But it doesn't. Not according to the data.
Why Using Social Interaction as a Metric Is a Bad Idea
If I'm a business and I'm on Twitter, Facebook and have a blog, I am now adequately prepared to interact with my customer base. Similarly, if I am a church or ministry and I am utilizing those same social tools, I can now properly interact with the volunteers and members of my organization. This does not mean that I am an effective organization, it simply means I'm properly prepared.
A business that is engaged socially with dozens of fans through Facebook likes, hundereds of @replys and scores of comments on blog posts doesn't mean they are an effective business. They can be pulling all the right strings socially and still be bankrupt. Don't believe me? Look at Blockbuster. Social interaction is not necessarily a good indicator of an effective business. It helps, but it's not an effective metric.
Similarly, a church, ministry or non-profit can have a blog posts with thousands of fans and still miss the point entirely. This one metric does not mean they are an effective organization. High social interaction does not mean they are achieving their organizational goals. That is, if they know what their goals are in the first place. (And, in my experience, most don't!)
The goal of a church may center around interacting with people relationally, but ultimately it's about furthering a message. That, I believe, is what needs to be measured.
In that case, I think one can begin to quantify how to measure relational engagement online. Measuring relational interactions is not a bad goal and it's not nearly as immeasurable as some believe it to be. It just means you need to find a way to quantify those results. Trust me when I say this, it can be done:
- How many people joined discipleship groups as a result of Twitter?
- How many people joined our church after being invited to do so on the Facebook fan page?
- How many more people are a part of missions trips this year after we gave each mission trip a profile on our blog?
- What does giving look like since we put a “give now” button on our main website and promoted it through Twitter?
Anecdotes, while powerful, are weak at building a verified, sustainable and effective social media strategy:
- This is true in the marketplace: “Little Johnny liked Sprinkle Cake Waffles better than Wholsome Oaty Boats, therefore all five-year-olds must like Sprinkle Cake Waffles better!”
- And in the church world: “I led someone to the Lord today on Twitter by following the hashtag #lonleyandsad. Therefore everyone who uses that hashtag will want a @reply saying how much Jesus loves them!”
Anecdotes build stories, not strategies.
Bottom line: Regardless of what you're measuring, whether widgets sold or relationships started, blog comments, Facebook fans and likes and Twitter @replys are a lousy way to measure it.
Engagement Theory Begets Lazy Thinking
My observation in my own life has been that when I use the “engagement theory” as a success metric, I'm actually being lazy. Or vague. Or both.
It's easy to look at the boatload of social interaction I have and point to it as “success!” But if I never knew what I was measuring in the first place, is that truly success? Even if high social interaction was my goal, I have no way of knowing whether I was effective or not because no standards were in place.
That's lazy thinking.
Honestly, it's what I see in most social media practitioners both inside and outside the church. We don't know how to measure, so we point to lots of comments and likes to prove our efforts are worthwhile. In reality, we have no idea if it's effective, but we need to pat ourselves on the back for something, right? We have skeptics to disprove!
It is my newfound belief that the “social” in social media relates more to the ability to share content rather than the ability to share conversation. Sharing content you find useful/helpful/funny/beautiful is where the power in social media lies. Find ways to measure sharing, not socializing, and you'll be on the right track.
As an experiment, the comments on this post are turned off. Take this conversation and share it with those around you. Put your thoughts out on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. Share, share, share!.