August 3rd, 2022

Why social media has broken social listening, and how to fill the gaps

By Allison Horton

Key takeaways:

  • Social platforms that once served up a silver platter of data on earned-media engagement have deprioritized news articles.
  • With often <10% of article traffic originating from social media – and little correlation between the two – social listening is a misleading proxy for article readership.
  • It’s time to rethink the role of social listening for Comms and Marketing, and find new data sources to fill the gaps.

23% of U.S. adults use Twitter.

And among them, just 10% are responsible for 92% of Tweets.

It’s a surprising finding coming from the Pew Research Center, but should I be so shocked given my own habits? I have a Twitter account that I use for some aggressive lurking, but never Tweeting. When I want to share an article I found on Facebook, I usually copy the link and fire it off in group texts or Slack channels. I might like the occasional post from a brand on Instagram, but I’m acutely aware of the activity my friends, family, and ex-boyfriends can see on the platform. While I wouldn’t go so far to call myself the norm, that Pew study suggests I’m not an exception either. 

With so much engagement on brand content happening outside of social channels – and with the engagement inside those channels driven by the vocal minority – what role does social listening serve for Comms and Marketing teams? To understand where social listening can continue to provide valuable intel, we first need to dissect where it’s no longer relevant in 2022:

The days of measuring earned media performance with social are waning.

There was a time when the only datapoint we had for quantifying article performance was potential impressions (i.e. the publication’s unique monthly visitors). So when news content exploded on Facebook and Twitter, it’s no surprise that PR & Comms teams flocked to social listening tools to report actual engagement with articles posted to feeds – finally a more tangible metric!

But news content just doesn’t have the same prominence it did a decade ago on social media. When analyzing our users’ press, Memo’s Insights team often finds that social referred less than 10% of an article’s traffic (organic search, email, aggregators, and the publication’s own website are more common traffic drivers).

Most articles about these brands received less than 10% of their traffic from social media channels over a 28-day period.

With Facebook and Instagram emphasizing creator content over posts from your followers, and with Meta further confirming it will no longer pay publications for content in the News tab, the decline in news readership from social media is likely to continue.

Social engagement on an article isn’t even directionally indicative of readership.

Measuring the performance of news content via social engagement is incredibly misleading: the number of likes/shares/comments an article receives is not directional to how many people actually read that article. 

To illustrate, take the below mapping of social engagement (vertical axis) against article readership (horizontal axis) for 600 articles about a large fast food restaurant. There is no discernible trend that defines the relationship between how much engagement an article receives on social media and how many times that article is actually read. (Technically the correlation coefficient here is 0.18, so a very weak positive relationship.)

Many highly read articles have low social engagement – not surprising given how little traffic social often refers to articles.

Conversely, some articles have high social engagement but relatively low readership – also not surprising given that users share articles without reading them (usually on hot-button issues) and the proliferation of spam bots.

This unpredictability in how users interact with news content on social media is also driven by changes to the platforms themselves – changes that have implications to marketing more broadly. 

Beyond PR, platform changes have also made social listening a less valuable signal for marketers.

The social media landscape is undergoing a seismic shift. “TikTok says it’s an ‘entertainment platform.’ Snapchat calls itself a ‘camera company.’ Meta says it’s a ‘metaverse’ company. The era in which social networking served as most users’ primary experience of the internet is moving behind us,” to quote Axios’ Sara Fischer, who was in turn summarizing Scott Rosenberg’s article “Sunset of the social network.”

Platforms that once served up a silver platter of data on consumer trends, brand relevance, and news engagement are moving away from the user experiences that facilitated this centralized measurement. Public news feeds are giving way to private groups and messaging channels; posts authored by connections are being supplanted by creator content; and short-form videos are the future.

Even Twitter, the most accessible platform to social listening tools, is in flux: it has yet to find a sustainable business model and is one acquisition away from an overhaul of its own. Until then, discourse is skewed to a minority of users (the 10% of power Tweeters), and politically biased (over two-thirds of those users identify as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents). 

This isn’t to say social listening doesn’t have value; we just need to acknowledge its gaps.  

We need to be more judicious about what we rely on social for, and where we supplement gaps with other data. I’ve already discussed the shortcomings of using social listening to measure earned-media engagement, so let’s take another use case:

Using Twitter as a barometer for brand health, for example, can easily over-index on the negative. Among the 90% of infrequent Tweeters, how many emerge only to @ an airline for missing luggage or air some other grievance in hope of rectification? If Twitter is for complaining, it can certainly help measure threats to brand health, but it will overlook the engagement happening outside the platform with more positive brand stories.

And we need other data sources to reveal the trends that social listening can no longer surface.

There’s a trove of content about brands that people engage with everyday online: articles in the press. And unlike social platforms – where most activity is public to at least a group of followers – engagement with articles is often private. Readership is free of participation bias, virtue signaling, and algorithm manipulation. It’s an honest signal for the stories and brands that consumers are interested in and, for the first time, it’s finally measurable.

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