Evaluating social media reach: two pitfalls to avoid

The data you use to evaluate your organisation’s social media strategies are important: they are the lens through which you view the success or failure of different strategies. So it’s important the measures you use are accurate, reliable and fit for purpose.

There are two pitfalls in particular that you need to avoid when measuring social media reach over time. To illustrate these pitfalls, consider the following example for an imaginary organisation wanting to evaluate the impact of a new social media strategy on its Facebook reach.

To evaluate the effectiveness of the new strategy, the communications team runs the new strategy for a few months, then compares reach data with reach under the old strategy.

The table below shows the data. Posts before the new strategy had a reach of 6,000. Posts after had a reach of 7,000.

At first glance, it appears the new strategy has worked, as reach has grown.

If these were the only numbers presented to senior managers, the new strategy will be deemed a success. The communications team will receive pats on the back and the new strategy will be locked in.

But this might be the wrong outcome, as these basic reach numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Two important factors must be considered before deciding on the new strategy’s success – the number of posts, and the number of followers.

Number of posts

The nature of Facebook reach data differs depending on whether you are measuring an individual post or a number of posts.

The more you post over a period of time, the higher your reach numbers are likely to be.

One post might gain a reach of 1,000. A second post may gain a reach of 1,000. But that doesn’t mean that you can add these figures together to say that your reach has doubled; the posts may have reached exactly the same 1,000 people.

The easiest way to avoid misinterpreting reach data for multiple posts is to calculate average reach per post. It is a much more accurate measure for how well posts perform over time, and it’s easy to calculate: simply divide total reach by the number of posts over the period being evaluated.

The table below shows what happens to the imaginary organisation’s reach data when number of posts is accounted for.

Average post reach is higher under the new strategy, so the new strategy still appears to be better – although the difference isn’t as big as implied by simple reach data.

But there is another important influence that should also be accounted before the new strategy can be deemed a success.

Number of followers

Consider the changing world into which the strategy was rolled out. Before the new strategy, the organisation had 1,000 followers. After three months under the new strategy, the organisation had 1,500 followers. That’s an increase of 500 followers.

With more followers, you would expect the organisation’s posts to have a higher reach – not just because its audience has expanded with a bunch of new followers, but because its potential audience has been multiplied even further by its new followers’ followers. Posts will not just be seen by the new followers directly, but also indirectly, or organically, as the new followers engage with the posts.

The higher your number of followers, the higher your reach numbers are likely to be. A strategy run when an organisation has a greater number of followers can have a higher reach, even it’s a worse strategy. Not accounting for an increase in followers risks attributing success to a strategy that is no different or even inferior.

Reach per follower can be used to account for the impact of audience size.

In the example, once reach per follower is taken into account, can the new strategy still be considered to have expanded the organisation’s reach?

As the table below shows, the answer is no.

Posts under the old strategy had an average reach rate of 60 percent (60 per 100 followers). Posts under the new strategy had an average reach rate of 47 percent (47 per 100 followers).

By this measure, the new strategy did not reach the organisation’s potential audience as effectively as the old strategy. The older posts gained a superior penetration into the organisation’s potential online audience.

What do the numbers mean?

There’s no doubt from the numbers that the organisation’s Facebook reach has expanded. But it’s also clear that the organisation is reaching a lower proportion of its potential audience.

That could be a lost opportunity – and a loss of potential revenue – for the organisation.

What if the type of posts published under the old strategy were more effective than the new style of posts? What if the new strategy has attracted a different type of audience – one that is less engaged, uses Facebook less, or has lower average number of followers? Maybe the new followers prefer a different style of post?

How can the new followers be better reached and engaged? More analysis, testing and tweaking may be needed to optimise the new strategy and make the most of the growth in the organisation’s larger pool of followers.

Without taking account of number of posts and the number of followers, these important questions may never be asked, and refinements to the strategy not undertaken.

Meaningful, fit for purpose data

Social media platforms provide masses of detailed data to help organisations analyse their audiences and plan ways to increase engagement.

But it’s important that the measures used are meaningful and fit for purpose. Decisions made on bad or unfit data will be bad decisions, and could represent lost opportunities or foregone revenue.

Adjusting your reach data for the number of posts and followers will provide richer insights into the strategies and tactics that will maximise your social media impact.

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