Social platforms have buried their own metrics under a pile of irrelevance

When social networks first started, we were calling them the best thing that happen to comms. There, brands could interact with consumers directly and receive cues on how to improve, social commerce would ensure that reviews enabled decision-making. It was democracy in marketing and with people being given direct tools to engage with brands. Likes, shares, retweets would be quantifiable proof of audiences engaging.

That’s what we thought.

Fast forward to today and we are in a place where we call most native platforms metrics “vanity”. Vanity as in “the quality of being worthless or futile”, as defined by Merriam Webster. Likes, shares, retweets or any form of platform-defined engagements have been relegated to a place of sheer lack of merit and this is, at the very least, odd.

Odd because we are, irrespective of how much people might discuss the “automation” of behaviour on platforms or the possibility of bots faking the results, in a place where consumer behaviour and observable and, to a point, rational consumer interaction are being branded as meaningless. As a viewer of TV programs, you are the least likely candidate for measurable reactions. The closest we’ve ever been to gauging audience reaction to TV advertising at scale has been highly questionable remotes that get passed around or eye movement recognition. Radio is no better. OOH is probably lowest on that scale, if there ever was a scale. Digital was an improvement because one could argue clicks were tangible proof of input. Likes, shares and retweets might have been a higher dimension of that: a direct, measurable, quantifiable input from audiences at tremendous scale.

That could have been. But it’s not.

Odd, again, because the platforms that have put these very metrics in the vocabulary of marketing are now doing less than they should to demonstrate that they measure anything other than pointless behaviour. Vanity behaviour → behaviour that does not translate into anything (brand or business value). That’s where we are. The very proponents of these metrics are now overlooking them (after making marketing departments chase them for years) in favour of more classical, standard means of evaluating success in marketing.

What’s happened? How have we failed to equate observable human behaviour to any meaningful impact on objectives? One can only speculate: maybe that behaviour, the expressing of appreciation and interest, is truly meaningless on social platforms. Or maybe it is meaningless when directed at brands. Or maybe we have not tried hard enough to attach meaning to that behaviour. And who’s at fault if liking, sharing and retweeting are meaningless now? Surely, we did not start by meaninglessly liking stuff. Appreciation was genuine. What happened to it? Where did it go?

In all this pile of questions, I have one certainty: platforms should not allow their metrics to fall into disrepute. They should be actively engaging with advertisers and audiences to understand what these action and the subsequent metrics mean and how they can be best used. And, if we definitively prove that they are meaningless, they should be changed because there’s no point in asking someone to click a thumbs up if that thumbs up means nothing.

Digital Strategist. The Internet will save the world (pending verification). Views expressed here are my own/should not be construed as coming from my employer.

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