Conventional wisdom drives me nuts. Far too often, it’s accepted without question. Something doesn’t really have to be true; you just have to get enough people to say it’s true: Dogs see only black and white. You can’t swim for an hour after eating. And you can identify a piece of successful content by the number of shares and likes it has.

That last bit of conventional wisdom has been bugging me for a while. The problem is that likes and shares don’t necessarily correlate with conversions and sales. Nonetheless, some would insist that a blog post that got 1000 shares and 0 conversions was more successful than a blog post that got 0 shares and 1000 conversions. And, in my opinion, that logic is just a few sugars shy of a sweet tea. So I decided to do a little detective work. Here’s what I learned:

Soft metrics may be relevant, if they’re tied to business goals.

Adwin Gerritsen, writing for spotONvision, made an excellent point: If soft metrics have no connection to the bottom line, why bother with content marketing at all? Even I can’t argue with that logic! Still, though, it takes us back to where we started. Soft/social metrics, to be meaningful, have to be tied to business goals. The kicker is that you have to understand how they’re tied to business goals and why it matters.

According to Gerritsen, there are three business goals that matter when it comes to content marketing: finding customers, keeping customers, and growing customers. Here are some ways soft metrics tie in to those goals:

Page views and likes

Finding customers is a two-way street. Sure, you want to find customers, but you also want them to find you — you know, that whole awareness thing. The more awareness your brand generates, the bigger your pool of potential customers becomes. Metrics like pages views, bounce rates, and likes are good indicators of awareness.

Shares and comments

Have you ever watched a cat toy with a mouse? Or been fishing and felt those first few tentative nibbles? That’s engagement. It’s the I-think-I’m-interested-but-haven’t-made-my-mind-up-yet phase. And that engagement can be indirectly measured by things like shares, Tweets, etc. The more potential customers comment, share, Tweet, etc., the more engaged they become. And there’s even a bonus benefit: All of that sharing spreads awareness among other prospective customers.

Proactive advocacy (i.e., free advertising)

Remember when Tom Sawyer convinced his buddies that painting that fence was so incredibly awesome that they stood in line waiting for their turn to do his chore? Yeah, that’s advocacy: When your customers do the hard work for you. You can track this by monitoring things like testimonials and mentions on social media.

But don’t stop there.

If you prefer hard numbers, take heart: It’s definitely doable (if not always easy). According to the folks at Buffer, you need to follow these steps:

  • Identify your goals: Get people to subscribe to your newsletter, sign up for email notifications, download a PDF, etc.
  • Measure your success: How many people subscribed, signed up, downloaded that PDF, etc.?
  • Assign a monetary value to each of your goals: Some people focus on the lifetime value of a customer, others on average ticket, others on conversion rate, etc.
  • Calculate the cost of achieving those goals: Sure, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are free, but you have to consider the cost of your time (or the time of the person you’re paying to do it for you). And if you’re paying for things like social media ads and premium services, don’t forget to include those costs as well.
  • Do the math: The commonly accepted calculation for ROI is (Return – Investment)/Investment.

Now, far be it from me to question Buffer, but I’d change the order around a bit. It seems to me that calculating ROI ahead of time (even if it’s just an estimate) is critical to knowing which goals you should focus on. You can always go back and recalculate with hard numbers later.

The bottom line? Yes, you can use social metrics to measure the success of your content. But you have to thoroughly understand the whole cause-and-effect relationship for it to be meaningful.

And then there’s this: What good is the ROI going to do you in a vacuum? Do you have to know what your ROI should be, in a perfect world? Or does it only matter that it’s better than the ROI of traditional marketing? What do you think?

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