Are Universal Social Engagement Standards Possible?

Business needs a better barometer of audience interaction in social media.

Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

January 28, 2013

5 Min Read

Given examples like T-Mobile's and others, enterprises can now take social media, combined with functional big data analysis, and aim directly for data-driven improvements in their daily operations. With appropriate integration with our business processes, we should be able to use ground truth from millions of real-time and real-world data points to improve customer acquisition, satisfaction and retention, boost sales and use our connection with the social world to co-create better products and services with the marketplace. Or so both theory and early practice suggests.

There are, however, at least a couple of significant flies in the ointment when it comes to social measurement and analytics as the next breakthrough in business intelligence.

[ Ready to do big things? Read: Why Big Data Will Deliver ROI For Social Business. ]

First, while subjective and business-specific measures of engagement are quite achievable for a specific organization in a specific social channel, the process becomes much more challenging when looking at in the context of the entire social universe. The question quickly becomes whether a Facebook "like" is equivalent to a retweet? How about a comment on a customer community vs. conversations between blogs? The organizations seeking to baseline and analyze social media activity quickly discover that there's no universal standard for social engagement. Without that, there's no easy or accepted way to objectively determine what's connected, contextually relevant and significant for the business.

In other words, the conversations that take place in one social network or social media site can't be compared to another site or the rest of the social media world because the social gestures, modes of participation and the way they impact the local community are structurally and semantically different. Any comparison is also affected by numerous related factors including the community's size, type, dynamics, reach and levels of influence.

This means it's not just challenging but often impossible to look at the conversations in global social media and measure overall sentiment or effectiveness of a new social engagement process. In short, most companies must currently guess the weighting or emphasis in their social media measurement formulas. And this is likely to lead to feedback loops which don't accurately direct the company towards the outcomes they seek.

Second, while we've gotten better as an industry in establishing basic standards for social networks, such as identity, social graphs and activity streams, we're still in the early days of standardized access to large-scale social data streams from places like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I've posited that the parochial control that the big social networks have imposed on social data in order to bolster their business models is leading to a potentially dangerous monoculture. But I believe this will largely take care of itself, as lack of open access will generally hamper many of those same business models.

[ Related: Enterprise Social Networks Need Open Standards. ]

Instead, I believe the real issue with social networking standards, when it comes to fully enabling social analytics, is that there is no commonly recognized universal metric for social engagement. Despite the fact that there is one online universe, we only have recognized standards for low-level social information, such as who we are, who we know and what we post -- but not a fundamental unit for engagement. The hard part (which may indeed may be very difficult to overcome) will be to establish a meaningful standard of engagement across our workers, customers, trading partners and the market as a whole.

Yet, many of the most interesting scenarios in social business require that we bound precisely this problem. Without a useful common measure of engagement, it rapidly becomes a quagmire to look at the thousands of social venues our companies must listen to, measure and analyze, and determine what's really important and what isn't, and whether our efforts in social media are having an impact or not.

That's not stopped the industry from trying however. The widely used and often-derided NetPromoter score was an early attempt at doing this. But as a single number for your company, its focus is on the wrong end of the point of measurement. It should be on the social networks themselves that we have standardized scores that we can roll up and accurately feed into NetPromoter and other interesting measures, set by our industry or ourselves.

I've been a proponent of social networking standards and technology standards for many years. While complex and theoretical technical standards usually have only minor impact, useful and pragmatic open standards can greatly accelerate what's possible. They can also bridge consensus in a way that creates opportunity, flexibility, interoperability, economies of scale and greater economic value. It now seems apparent we are in a place where open standards for social business in the areas of social engagement, behavior and business metrics would greatly benefit the industry. The tricky part will be doing this well and broadly, but the outcome is easy enough to see: A much more effective way to get practical business results from our social engagement with the world.

This is the industry debate that urgently needs to happen in my opinion: Are the low-level social networking standards we have today adequate? Or are we lacking in the standards that support what our businesses really need to work effectively in the social world?

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About the Author(s)

Dion Hinchcliffe


Dion Hinchcliffe is a business strategist, enterprise architect, frequent keynote speaker, book author, blogger, and industry analyst who works with business and technical leaders in large companies to apply emerging technology to drive digital transformation and growth. He is most recently co-author of Social Business By Design from John Wiley & Sons (2012) and has personally led large-scale social business and smart mobility strategy initiatives for Fortune 500 and Global 2000 firms on three continents.

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