How to Gain Strategic Insight from Digital Metrics

By Stephen D. Rappaport • April 15, 2014

Few topics give association executives more fits than choosing metrics—the counts, percentages and ratios that are supposed to measure the performance of digital initiatives. The great majority of digital metrics put a number on tactical results—the things that campaigns encourage people to do, such as opening emails, clicking links, reading pages and viewing videos, posting and commenting, sharing, downloading content, installing apps, liking, checking-in, and friending, connecting or following.

But where is the strategic insight?

Missing in action.

  • Don’t fall into the trap of optimizing to platform and network metrics.Tweet: Don't fall into the trap of optimizing to platform and network metrics. Via @NaylorLLC
  • Most digital metrics report tactical results, not strategic impacts that achieve objectives.Tweet: Most digital metrics report tactical results, not strategic impacts that achieve objectives. Via @NaylorLLC
  • For strategic insight, develop a theory about how digital supports your objectives, then develop a measurement framework and fit metrics to it.Tweet: Develop a theory about how digital supports your objectives, then develop a measurement framework and fit metrics to it.
  • Challenge your digital experts to explain how digital works for your association, why it works and how you know it works.Tweet: Challenge your digital experts to explain how digital works for your association, why it works and how you know it works.

The reason? Most brands and associations aim to maximize to suppliers’ metrics, such as likes or followers, rather than to their own brand objectives.

Why is that? We tend to think that metrics from social, mobile, Web or email vendors have fundamental meanings, as scientific measures do. But supplier metrics are different: They derive from their supplier business models and their assumptions about how their platform or service works. Views, likes, shares, social clicks, friends and such are really “endometrics,” as media authority and mathematician Gilles Santini calls them. These metrics describe a system in its own terms, not according to some objective standards.

Like, what are you measuring?

A social network that talks up the philosophy of engagement, word-of-mouth, liking, implied endorsements from friends, contacts or connections, or sharing as drivers of advertising effectiveness, for example, will capture data and report metrics along those lines. When their philosophies are promoted as “how advertising works on their platform” by themselves or by agencies, consultants or gurus, then brands quite naturally work hard to optimize one or more of the metrics available for that platform to improve their chances for success.

Consider the ubiquitous “like.” How many times has a colleague or partner said to you, “We have to get more likes!” What, however, is the business reason? Usually the answer is, “Because more likes are better.” But are they?

Real-world example

Take this example: Brand X is targeting greater growth by reaching light-users, brand-switchers and nonusers, and decides upon a campaign to increase likes. Independent studies by Karen Nelson-Field and United Parcel Service show that people who like a brand are disproportionately the brand’s loyalists or deal-seekers. Likers are not—as often assumed—a diverse group of people, all having warm feelings towards a particular brand. Brand X’s strategy to increase likes unintentionally risks transforming a growth play into a volume and promotion play. Undoubtedly it will achieve results, but probably not the growth outcomes senior management seeks. (However, a brand aiming for volume gains or offering a sales promotion may find increasing likes attractive).

Three steps to strategic insight through digital metrics

1. Develop a theory about how digital media should help your association achieve its goals, such as member recruitment, retention, engagement or conference attendance.

Let’s take an example from packaged goods. Here a leading food brand sought to increase sales through a stepped-up use of social media. But the brand realized that merely counting recipe downloads or coupon redemptions would not tell a story about its initiative’s impact. Instead, it adopted an evidence-based theory that connected levels of brand advocacy to brand sales: Increases or decreases in brand advocacy led to increases or decreases in sales 30 days later.

2. Create a measurement framework based on your theory.

The CPG brand recognized that brand advocacy reflected a high level of consumer involvement. The brand identified four stages of increasing involvement and precisely defined them: awareness (a consumer passively receiving message about the brand), participation (a simple effort to interact with the brand), engagement (greater or more frequent interaction with the brand and sharing) and advocacy (the consumer is committed to the brand and is speaking—unsolicited—on behalf of the brand with other consumers).

3. Select and fit metrics to the framework.

Defining the stages enabled the CPG brand to select the most suitable metrics for their purpose. Importantly, it chose a manageable set—13 in all—to monitor and track. It knew that having an economical set would result in a sharp analytic focus and tell a tight narrative about the performance of its initiatives.

Two examples show how to fit measures into the framework. For the awareness stage, the brand tracked three metrics: impressions served, reach and brand mention amplification. Here the CPG brand measures awareness with traditional display advertising exposure measures and one social one. Their advocacy metrics tell a different story. For this stage, it analyzes trends in positive user-generated content on the brand’s behalf, net promoter score and the number of social recommendations to friends. In contrast to awareness, these measures are social through and through and embody action.

This straightforward scheme enabled the CPG brand to go away from saying, “this looks good,” “this went up” and “this went down,” to understanding what is going on, what it means and what to do. If participation stage measures are going up, but advocacy measures are going down, the brand knows how to interpret those changes in the context of its strategy and theory and which steps to take.

Not for consumer brands only

The principles of a working theory, measurement framework and fitting metrics apply equally to associations. I worked with professional associations for nearly a decade. I often heard comments that the digital strategy teams dutifully reported retweets, follower counts and the rest, but no one knew what they meant other than “we got more, and that is good” or what action to take, other than “let’s get more.” If they offered a theory, framework and metrics, then everyone would have known what the numbers meant, their business impact and what executives should do to ensure success.


Faced with mounting pressure to build, grow and sustain associations, digital initiatives take on greater importance by the day. Association leaders need analyses that point out the impact of their strategies on performance and move away from feasting on the eye candy of pretty numbers for tactics. Developing theories and frameworks need not be daunting or mysterious: Begin by asking the question, “how and why digital initiatives should work to help us achieve our association goals, and how will we know we are making progress?” Answer that question and you will be on your way to understanding what metrics really mean and what steps to take next.

Stephen D. Rappaport, senior consultant of Stephen D. Rappaport Consulting, LLC, is author of The Digital Metrics Field Guide: The Definitive Reference for Brands using the Web, Social Media, Mobile Media, or Email (ARF 2014), and also of Listen First! (Wiley 2011) and The Online Advertising Playbook(Wiley 2007). Prior to forming his consultancy, Stephen headed the Advertising Research Foundation’s Knowledge Center.