Finding your social media sweet spot

A client recently asked: “Which is more important? Direct traffic to my site or referrals from social networks?” The answer is: both.

Direct traffic is the source of topline metric bragging rights and revenue in shops that use impression-based advertising, but social referrals are – increasingly – the coin of the realm for reputation and loyalty. In other words, it’s a quantity vs. quality argument…and we’d like to maximize both of those attributes.

Effectively connecting with your social audience means joining the conversation – a conversation that’s going on, all the time, about topics that your organization knows best. Whether it’s immigration, education policy or…ferrets, true media brand leaders know the importance of being active, alive and authoritative in social media.

But how do you decide which sweet spot to aim for? And how will you know when you hit it?

This is a job for qualitative analytics: It’s not the numbers; it’s the stories they tell. A good tool to start defining your story is Google Analytics. Within the suite, a number of useful reports are grouped under the Traffic Sources | Social tab.

Google Analytics menuYou’ll see primary sources of social referrals (Facebook is #1 for most news and information sites), landing pages for those referrals and most common paths through your site. All these reports help illuminate what’s happening through the eyes of your social connections.

You’ll also see the trend line for social referrals as a percentage of all visits – but don’t stress over that. Remember, we’re drilling down on quality. It is a good idea to look at these numbers daily, so you’ll have an instinctual baseline and easily notice if the metrics go out of band.

One key to optimizing your content in the social realm is GA’s trackbacks report. This isn’t comprehensive, but can provide insights into how your content is being used, as well as the context. Follow trackback links using the “More” dropdown. Chances are, you’ll be surprised by what your fans and (especially) critics are saying and seeing in what you’ve produced. Rather than overreact, take it as a window into that conversation; take comfort in being part of it and reflect on the priorities it reveals.

Another useful tool is Social Mention. This web app searches across social networks for references to your search term or brand. Unlike Google Analytics, Social Mention includes links passed in the public areas of Facebook and Twitter, so you’re getting a broader picture of friends, followers and folks who dig (or Digg) what you’re publishing.

Again, this is a window into conversations that include your content. Follow the links: Explore the networks of the people who are sharing links to your site. You’ll likely find new idents to add to your Twitter Lists and Facebook subscriptions. You can also use the data to help develop your strategy for reaching specific audiences with shares and tweets in particular areas of interest. In this game, the more precise the targeting, the more the content resonates.

The Swiss Army Knife for finding and monitoring content categories may be NetVibes. (It’s also a dandy replacement for Google Reader, if you’re uptight about that particular sign of impending doom.)

NetVibes lets you create custom dashboards of data. This can include your own analytics as well as links and comments about your brand throughout the social sphere.

You might want to set up one dashboard for monitoring explicit references to your name and authors then build others to watch your competition or to function as “listening posts” – peeking in on social activity around your primary content categories, focusing on channels and influencers that have the most to say.

Like the famous knife, the free version of NetVibes is a versatile tool, but it’s up to you to find uses for it. The paid app ($499/month) claims to offer turnkey “dashboard intelligence” modules and functionality, including sentiment analysis, curation assistance and alerts. Personally, I get at least five bills’ of enjoyment out of tweaking and tuning my dash collection for unique purposes (I use one dashboard just to track air fares), but your mileage may vary.

At the end of the day, these tools and others like them can be some of your best friends in the fight for visibility and relevance. Insights from monitoring conversations in the social world can help you refine your approach, target your syndication and assist you in defining your niche(s) more precisely. But never forget the “social” in social media: Despite the technological trappings, it’s a human endeavor and – in the end – nothing succeeds better than applying human sensibility and being human yourself.