don't cry

We need to talk about social sharing counts. Content marketers have developed a serious addiction to them that I think is bordering on unhealthy–and I’m saying this as one of the folks on the team that created Flare, a social sharing bar app!

Share counts are in danger of becoming the new Pageview, because they have the same traits as any vanity metric: They’re easily inflated, generate impressive-sounding numbers with lots of digits, and are difficult to tie to actual, meaningful engagement on the part of the visitor.

If a post is shared in the woods, and no-one clicks on it, has it really been engaged with?

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In this post, I’m going to show you how raw social share counts are becoming irrelevant to measuring true content performance, and tell you why traffic referred to your sites from social networks is a better indicator of visitor engagement with your posts. But first: the evidence…

Exhibit A: The Sound of Silence

I actually came to write this post as I was clicking around Buzzsumo, looking for a topic to write about (so meta, I know). I logged in there and did a quick search for “content marketing”, “web analytics”, and a few other topics near and dear to my nerdy little heart. And what did I see?

Screenshot of Buzzsumo results for "content marketing"

The lights are on…

For several of these topics, the top 3 posts had thousands of social shares, easily outpacing the rest, so I couldn’t resist, and clicked through them to see what was up. Now, with all the buzz around those posts implied by the gargantuan size of their share counts, surely there’s a virtual party happening on them, with comments flying to and fro, and witty repartée galore?

zero comments

…but no-one’s home.

Nope. Almost without exception and despite having been shared by thousands people, not a single reader felt these posts were worth commenting on.

Exhibit B: It’s not about you, it’s about them

A study about the psychology of social sharing commissioned by the New York Times concluded that there are 5 core reasons why people share content–and “because I thought the post was good” is only obliquely related to one of those core reasons.

The study found that it’s actually more likely someone shared your post because of how it makes them look to others, than because they just really dug what you published. #sadtrombone

Exhibit C: Twitter killed their share counts

best-worst-death-scene-ever

As of November 20th, 2015, Twitter has actually killed the API that tracks their share counts across the entire web, meaning you can no longer see how many times a post has been tweeted (unless you use Twitter’s own analytics tool). This move has caused a fair amount of consternation among developers and industry commentators, as you can see below.

https://twitter.com/MDMJonathan/status/668952916762447872

Sharing volume just took a big step toward the “can’t manage” category, so while content marketers are likely to be pissed off in the short term about this move, ultimately I predict we’ll stop trying to manage share volume, and instead focus on areas where we can measure our impact.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” ~ Peter Drucker

If the world’s #2 social network decides it’s just not worth tracking the share count of content across the web any more, it doesn’t matter whether you’re pro or anti, you know that share counts are going to fade from the conversation pretty soon.

Enter stage left: Social Referral Traffic

This situation sucks on a number of levels, but here’s how we can deal–focus less on the raw number of shares, and instead pay closer attention to how your site benefits from the shares it gets.

The only measurable thing any of the large social networks can provide that truly benefits your site is–you guessed it–traffic. So why not focus on the traffic the networks send you, instead? After all, what good is it to get twelve thousand tweets, if absolutely no-one clicks on those shares to visit the source of the goodness currently occupying their feed? I’ll tell you: it’s no good. Like a chocolate fireplace.

So here’s what you need to do…

1. Care more about social referral traffic

This is traffic going from Twitter, to your site, for example. When you see this go up, it means a) you probably have a catchy headline that’s making people click, and/or b) someone with a bit of influence shared your post. You know this because they shared it to their followers, and one or more of them clicked it. That’s probably someone worth connecting with, right?

Things to do:

  1. Keep track of which network(s) send you the most traffic–easy, Google Analytics does this, as does Filament Pro
  2. Make sure the meta tags of your blog’s page templates are all present and providing good info, e.g. the name of your blog and the post title, plus an image and a short description. This way, when someone shares your post, the resulting FB post, tweet, Pin, whatever, will appear nicely formatted to their followers, making them more likely to click.
  3. Figure out which networks send traffic to which posts on your site–this gives you a BIG clue as to where you likely should repromote your post, and hints at whether this is a good topic to write more about.

2. Measure the quality of your social referral traffic

Now this one’s a bit more open-ended, since the definition of good-quality traffic is really determined by your core metrics. I won’t leave you hanging–here’s a post on how to choose the blog metrics you should care about.

Once you’ve figured out which numbers to focus on, they can help you rank your social referrers to see which gives you the biggest bang for your buck. You want to get down to the worth of each visit from that referrer, so create a conversion rate for it – for example, if you care about getting more email subscribers, use that to determine the value of the traffic being sent to you:

# subscribers from Facebook / # Pageviews from Facebook = FB Subscriber Conv. Rate

Knowing this kind of conversion rate on a per-referrer basis helps you objectively compare them to each other, instead of just guessing based on the volume of pageviews.

In conclusion: Social Share Counts are over!

Sorry to say it, but share counts are over.

But it’s not the end of our content performance journey! Prioritizing and digging through the traffic you get from your social network referrers can more than cover the gaping hole left by our beloved share counts and give you clues to super-important questions, like what you should write about and where you should promote.

How are you dealing with Twitter’s decision to end share counts? Let me know in the comments!