Social media yardsticks: Which tools measure up?

We get asked all the time about how to measure success in social media. Basic quantitative measures are obvious: likes, follows, retweets. But none of the hard numbers measures what you’re really after – being a social force.

The distinction reminds me of my best friend’s mom. Specifically, her nugget of childhood wisdom: “It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice.” And there’s the rub.

rulersThere are a lot of tools out there; many are free. Some are thinly veiled sales pitches for technology that may or may not deliver meaningful results. Buy when you try to measure an elusive concept like “sentiment” (industry-speak for niceness), the tools add voodoo that may or may not clarify the picture.

The best approach is to try out the free tools (or arrange a free trial of a paid tool that looks good). Kick the tires and see if you’re getting the kind of answers you want. Just don’t expect to boil it down to single metric: That’s an oversimplification that inevitably leads to overstatement or disappointment.

The best approach is to make a list of questions you’d like to answer: How widely do our posts circulate? Are we generating commentary/criticism? What sort? What topics are buzzing in the community, and where does our content intersect?

Here’s a short list of tools to try. If you find some useful candidates, consider building a dashboard with output feeds (see previous post regarding NetVibes), or just a checklist that reminds you to check in to get a feel for trends over time.

Social Mention

I use this as a social “spot check” and to generate feeds I can use to build trending reports. From the online interface, you can search any term, from social idents to proper names and topics. For multiword searches, use quote marks to enclose the term.

Advantages: Fairly fast, provides simple analytics (minutes between mentions, sentiment, hashtags), RSS feed output option

Disadvantages: Can be erratic at times, sentiment data not verifiable, some off-target results may appear unless you use advanced options

HootSuite

As with Social Mention, you can enter any term in the interactive Search tool. To track trending on any result, click “Save as Stream.”

Advantages: Intuitive if you’re already a HootSuite user, smart search filters to refine results, easy to further syndicate results with retweet, reshare, etc.

Disadvantages: Really limited in the free version, consumes one of your 5 “profiles” for each saved search, can’t easily share stream with others unless you upgrade

TweetDeck

Works pretty much like HootSuite, without the premium workgroup stuff.

Advantages: Intuitive if you’re a TweetDeck user, easy to share results (but only on Twitter)

Disadvantages: No Facebook integration (TweetDeck’s policy, now that they’re owned by Twitter), very basic search filters

Twitter Advanced Search

It’s a search. It’s Twitter. And that’s the beauty of it.

Advantages: More filter/search options than you’d think, fast (most of the time), sentiment search option

Disadvantages: No RSS feeds (Twitter’s policy), no Facebook integration, sentiment search can be fooled

Crowdbooster

Another social management tool like HootSuite, but after the first 30 days there’s no “free” option. The dashboard has nice graphs and “recommendations” that amount to highlights of your social activity.

Advantages: Clean interface, fast performance after initial data ingest, Publish and Engage actions inside same tabbed interface

Disadvantages: Facebook and Twitter only, no free option

Topsy

It’s like Twitter Advanced Search with some old capability and real-time analytics: a good thing. The search includes a checkbox for “only trending” topics. Twitter recommends this tool for searching its own archives – like trending into the past.

Advantages: Familiar search interface and operators, real-time analytics, smart advanced options

Disadvantages: Twitter only, deep analytics and charts require paid option

All of these are useful in their own way; none is perfect. Several offer full-fledged social management capabilities (HootSuite, Crowdbooster), but that’s another comparo for another day.

I wouldn’t hesitate to use results from these freebies for an in-house buzz watch or other monitoring (including publication in internal reports), but I’d be leery of publishing the data as gospel. On the other hand, you could create your own mashup of several tools and searches to create your own “buzz index.” This eliminates the pretense of precision and opens to door to a curated “best of the bunch” feed or anything else you’d like to do.

Final thought: You might also try the social options on the big search sites (Google, Yahoo!, Bing) and see if they meet your needs. There’s Facebook’s much-debated Graph Search…if you dare. Bing, for one, will deliver you to the subject’s Klout profile, if one exists. That page includes a column of selected “influential moments” and the Klout ranking – if you absolutely must reduce everything to a single number. And, for now, Bing still gives you an RSS option (add “&format=rss” to the end of your search term).

For better or worse, the social world is still a human construct. Machine-based quantification will always fall short, but talented and insightful humans can mix and match our tools and reports to glean meaningful intel about just how “nice” we’re perceived to be.

In the end, that’s a pretty important idea.