IBM’s Black Friday study got it more than a little wrong

At awe.some, we know that social media is currently delivering significantly more value than it gets credit for, and that a closed-loop system like the one we have built is essential for marketers to understand clicks, conversions, results and return-on-investment (ROI) on par with the performance of other digital media.

Case in point: IBM’s much-publicized weekend Black Friday study cast a big net on online shopping activity, but we think they missed a big part of the story when they claimed that only a fraction of 1% of e-commerce traffic was referred by social media.

IBM strategy director Jay Henderson told AllThingsD that in 2013, social media “hasn’t proven effective to driving traffic to the site or directly causing people to convert.” IBM is writing off social media conversion as a rounding error. But they themselves admit they don’t look at the entire social picture. Big Blue’s assessment misses a big part of the story because it’s tracking the wrong things.

IBM focuses on buzz and referrers as a proxy to measure the impact of social media. The problem with this approach is that buzz is at best a directional indicator of engagement, and referrer data on its own is a poor way to attribute traffic from social sharing.

Referrals from social networks across the board continue to increase steadily each month, up 40% on a year-over-year basis according to one study. But this impressive growth notwithstanding, the referrer yardstick was designed for measuring traffic in a world limited to websites; it generally under-reports social traffic; and it doesn’t reveal the context of social media’s impact in a world where user engagement has shifted towards mobile apps, social streams, and dynamic web applications — each of which render referrers obsolete as an attribution mechanism. (Check out this post on referrers and social media from awe.some co-founder Jonathan Strauss if you want to explore this issue more deeply.)

Beyond missing out on a significant amount of social activity in mobile apps, social streams, etc., referrer tracking also misses the most massive area of sharing activity that ultimately drives conversion: “Dark Social”. Specifically, the shares that users initiate by cutting and pasting out of the browser address bar. Studies show that about half of social media messages fall into Dark Social’s hard-to-see abyss when they get passed around: one consumer cuts-and-pastes a URL or promo code into a text message or email. Another copies a web address from one social platform to post into another. Tracking how social messages get shared in these in-between-the-cracks areas can be very enlightening. We know because we help our clients do this all day long, and we know IBM didn’t bother.

Here’s just one example: a major fashion brand using awe.some’s social performance measurement recently learned that a huge majority of consumers who amplified a recent social media campaign — more than 90%** — did so by following promoted social posts into the brand’s site, then by manually re-sharing the page with their friends by copying and pasting the URL. The brand’s usual measurement tools missed all this downstream sharing. With awe.some, it was possible for them to see that social contributed to a much bigger amount of site activity and conversation than they’d originally thought.

We developed awe.some as a closed-loop system to measure social media marketing — from the very top of the funnel (reach, engagement) to the very bottom (click-to-buy, for example). On the other hand, traditional analytical tools are often built to look at one specific channel, or they only scratch the surface and miss the big picture. awe.some was built to allow brands to build measurement tools into a campaign at the start so they can see causal relationships and observe how posts performed on different social channels. Using awe.some, marketers can identify alpha influencers and understand which social platforms perform best. They can collect insights in real time as a campaign proceeds, and then rapidly fine-tune and optimize the execution of their campaigns, amplify the most successful channels and posts, cut back on inefficient channels, and get more bang for their marketing buck.

Consumers are spending ever more time engaging with social media as a primary activity, so having accurate ways to measurement their engagement with these burgeoning social platforms is crucial. IBM’s conclusions under represent the conversions and sales social media is driving. Retailers and marketers who understand the whole picture — from the top of the funnel to that conversion at the very bottom — have a leg up on the competition.