Metrics, Part 2: Are we measuring the right things?

(If you haven’t already read it, you might like to take a look at Part 1: The Webstats Legacy.)

Anand Giridharadas asks in the New York Times, Are metrics blinding our perception?. Giridharadas begins by talking about the Trixie Telemetry company which takes data about a baby’s naps, nappy changes and feed times and turns it into charts, graphs and analyses to “help parents make data-based decisions”. He then goes on to say:

Self-quantification of the Trixie Telemetry kind is everywhere now. quantifies your sexual encounters. quantifies your progress toward goals like losing weight. Withings, a French firm, makes a Wi-Fi-enabled weighing scale that sends readings to your computer to be graphed. There are tools to measure and analyze the steps you take in a day; the abundance and ideological orientation of your friends; the influence of your Twitter utterances; what you eat; the words you most use; your happiness; your success in spurning cigarettes.

Welcome to the Age of Metrics — or to the End of Instinct. Metrics are everywhere. It is increasingly with them that we decide what to read, what stocks to buy, which poor people to feed, which athletes to recruit, which films and restaurants to try. World Metrics Day was declared for the first time this year.

But measure the wrong thing and you end up doing the wrong thing:

Will metrics encourage charities to work toward the metric (acres reforested), not the underlying goal (sustainability)? […] Trees are killed because the sales from paper are countable, while a forest’s worth is not.

The same is true in social media. Count the wrong thing and you’ll do the wrong thing. As Stephanie Booth says, in the second video in this post:

As soon as you start converting behaviours into numbers then people adapt their behaviour to have good numbers.

She goes on to say that some of her clients believe that the number of comments they have on a blog post is a measure of success, but because of this they become obsessed with getting people to comment:

So you’re going to write posts which make people react or you’re going to encourage people to have chatty conversations in your comments. That’s really great, you get lots of comments, but does it mean that what you’re providing is really more valuable? […] I don’t believe that more is always better, that more conversation is always better. It’s “Is it relevant?” And that’s something that we do not know how to measure in numbers.

If the key metric for assessing success is a simplistic one like ‘page views’ or ‘unique users’ or ‘comments’, the emphasis in your web 2.0 strategy will be on creating something populist instead of something that meets a business need.

Let’s say you’re in eCommerce and you sell pet supplies. Your business goal is not ‘get more people onto our website’, it is ‘get more people buying pet supplies from our website’. The two are very different indeed. A company that believes that they need to just lots and lots of people through the virtual door will focus on anything that might get them more attention and traffic. A company that understands they need to attract the right people will focus on communicating with passionate pet lovers who arrive at the site primed to buy.

This is why niche blogs can command higher advertising rates than general news sites. Advertisers can see that more of the people who click their ads will actually buy their products and are willing to pay more for these higher quality visitors.

Equally, let’s say you want to ‘improve collaboration’ internally and to that end you start a wiki. You start measuring activity on the wiki and focus on ‘edits per user’ as a key metric. You encourage people to edit more, but the quality and amount of collaboration doesn’t increase as you expected. Why? Because people learnt that changing a single typo boosts their ‘edits per user’ count and took a lot less effort than creating a new page, engaging with a co-worker or making a substantive change. Focusing on the wrong numbers changes the wrong behaviour.

In order to think about metrics, you need to know exactly what you’re using social media for. Figure that out and you’re halfway there.