Jewel Marketing
Taiwan Content Marketing

What Organic Social Media Metrics Really Mean

By Jason Patterson

Founder of Jewel Content Marketing Agency
If your brand is using social media primarily as an organic publishing and promotion channel, the difference between success and failure ultimately boils down to numbers, measured in units such as likes, clicks, shares, and followers. And despite what some marketing experts will tell you, social metrics matter. Why? Lots of reasons, starting with the fact that unlike most of your other marketing metrics, the world can see them.

Social Media Vanity Metrics Are Not In Vain

Many marketing experts consider social metrics to be vanity metrics, and the term "vanity metrics" invites its own dismissal. A Google search yields definitions such as "things you can measure that don't matter" or "data points that have no real value to your business" or a number that "appears impressive but doesn't give insight into the true performance of a digital property."

All these definitions are wrong. All have some subjectivity. And they're certainly biased. A more technically accurate definition would be "a metric that yields no directly actionable insight" or "a metric that that has no direct impact on business value," though I personally find a little too much subjectivity in terms like "business value," "business outcome," and "things that matter."

Lots of things affect business outcomes that can't be tied to them directly, but they still matter, and business value isn't always reflected in current revenue and profits.

Vanity metrics are not perfect, of course, but neither are all the others. Gaming and manipulation are not difficult. The social media sites have flaws. Bots are everywhere. And we often change our measurement tools, leading to before and after comparisons that aren't apples to apples.

Vanity metrics are also the only means many unwealthy companies have to gauge their social media health, and I think those who deride them may have excessive confidence in other options. These critics often don't hate digital metrics, per se, they just want you to focus on different ones.

Every Marketer Has An Agenda

Vanity metric haters often want you to focus on just one (often paid advertising) metric, or a few. And the notion that a single number or a few can tell you everything you need to know about your business's digital performance strikes me as overly simplistic, and downright wrong given what we know now about the unreliability of paid metrics.

It's also dangerous in another way, as an exceedingly tight focus on a few metrics can lead to their gaming and manipulation, because the metrics you're watching can often be changed artificially, by manipulating some of the other metrics you're not watching.

Thus, I don't think we should look at social metrics as metrics at all, but rather as indicators. And most indicators, while having meaning, can't really tell you a story by themselves, just like a single word that has meaning can't tell a whole story. You need other words, just like you need other indicators, to provide context, so you can have a full picture where you really learn something.

Meet The Organic Social Media Indicators

All major organic social media indicators have meaning. And since all (or at least most) of these indicators (or their simpler proxies) are public, it's better for your brand if the meaning is good, so I wouldn't ignore them.


This is Exhibit A for vanity metric haters. And the usefulness of followers varies by channel (some channels have more bots than others). But followers definitely have business value (it just can't be measured), because if your brand has a social media account without followers, you look like amateurs. And organic is pointless without them.

Put simply, followers (assuming you didn't buy them) are an imprecise measure of brand strength and mindshare. If you don't have them on a certain channel, it means nobody there cares about your brand. And what's more, anyone who cares to look can see that nobody there cares about your brand. And that is actionable. My favorite example regarding how followers correlate with brand is Apple. They have 17 million LinkedIn followers at the time of this writing, and never once have they posted organic content there.

A thing to note about followers, and follower growth rate, is that, once your brand is established, both tend to correlate more with big-picture things happening with your brand and less with the content you're running on social media, or who's running it.

I'm not saying social content doesn't affect them at all, because it absolutely does, especially when a brand first launches on social media. It's just that content's relative importance to follower growth and number tends to decline over time as your brand accumulates more and more people following you for reasons not related to your content (such as them being your customers or employees).

So if you're an established brand, and you hire a new social media manager or guru, and the follower growth rate shoots up suddenly, it's very possible they're buying them, or gaming them. A quick way to check this is to watch what happens to the engagement rate during and after a follower growth spike. If it nosedives, be suspicious.


If you've got a lot of followers, but your engagement metrics are poor, your followers may not be following you for your content. They might be people who've bought something from you, employees and former employees, or followers acquired through giveaways and promotions, or through a variety of other means.

And assuming your followers weren't bought, a low engagement rate now means you're boring them now, regardless of why they followed you. Not every business needs to necessarily worry about this, because not every business relies on social as a publishing channel. But if you do, worry.

And if you've got a small number of followers and a lot of organic engagement, that probably means it's your friends, your mom, and your employees doing the engaging. And if your social media manager brags to you about this engagement without drawing attention to this context, fire them. Such engagement is only useful if your followers are growing at a decent speed.


Likes (now known as reactions on some sites) are the other big vanity metric hate target. And a like means exactly that, that the audience liked a post for some reason. And there are many reasons why someone might like a post, but remember that they're called "likes" and not "reasons." As with most other so-called vanity metrics, they're not a clean and precise measure, but likes generally indicate that there's something appealing or compelling about your content, and it's better to be liked than ignored or unliked. And if your content doesn't get likes, worry.


If your content is getting a lot of likes but not many shares or clicks to go with it, there are a couple of ways to interpret this. One, it could be a sign that your social media people are relying on clickbait shortcuts (like memes and baby photos), which could sap your brand equity in the long run. And two, it could mean it's your mom, your friends, and your employees doing the liking.

If your content doesn't have that many likes but is getting shared, that could be a sign of bots, or it could be a sign of employees being reluctantly cowed into sharing.

Engagement Rate

Engagement rate is a measure of how many people were inspired to stop scrolling (the default state of social media) and actually take a good look at your post and respond to it. And if this number isn't good, it means your brand's social media game sucks. And if this number is good (maybe 10% or more on certain channels), your content can actually be elevated in the algorithm. I'm a big fan of engagement rate. It's a nice sign of overall content health.

And it should be noted that all three major engagement rate components (likes, clicks, shares) should correlate with each other in a standard social media publishing situation. Content that gets liked should also be clicked-through and shared. If these three are out of balance, it's worth asking why.


If your organic content is getting clicked-through, without a lot of likes or shares, the clickers may be interested third parties who don't want to publicly display interest or preferences toward you, such as journalists or investors, and it's therefore likely that a lot of what you're posting are announcements, press releases, and investor reports. Whether that's good or bad depends somewhat on your business needs.

Share Rate (Virality)

A share means someone saw value in your post enough to share it with their connections. And this is really important. Think about the difference between a like and a share. If someone likes something but doesn't share it, this often means that while they personally appreciate it, they don't think their connections would, or perhaps they're embarrassed to share it for some reason. But if they share it, it means they think their connections will value or appreciate (i.e., engage with) your brand's social media content.

This is a very good thing, not easily achieved if you are a brand. Most people aren't naturally inclined to share branded content. Because, let's face it, most brands aren't cool. So, you need to be offering something great to overcome this reluctance, and you need to be reaching the right people with it.

If your share rate is good, or at least improving, it means your brand's social game and targeting are good, or at least improving. It means that you are reaching the right audiences (or at least some of them) with the right content in the right way. And I've already covered the sharing corollaries in the previous sections, except for bad shares (which will come with bad comments).

But What About Bots?

Sure, there are a lot of them out there, and some of them are probably following you, and sharing your content. But, guess what? Those bots are helping you fake it till you make it in terms of follower numbers. And the ones that share content are often connected to plenty of real live humans. So, while they may be mucking up your numbers a bit, they're also helping you out. And they're not going anywhere (despite the fact that some channels purge them occasionally), so learn to live with them.

Please note: Here I'm only talking about the bots that affect your organic numbers. Bots that click your paid stuff, on the other hand, are little bastards, because they waste your advertising budget, and should be avoided as much as possible.

Growth Isn't Always The Answer

Something to remember about social media indicators is, even though, as you can see, I do appreciate them, growth in them isn't always the best KPI for your social media team (as I mentioned earlier). There are five reasons why.

One, as followers grow, engagement rate (and the other rate indicators that correlate with it) tends to decline. The reason why, in the broadstrokes, is because as you pick up more followers, the more diverse your follower base becomes, making its interests more diverse, making it increasingly hard to please everyone.

You can think of this natural tendency towards engagement rate decline as being like gravity. If you have a growing follower base, and the engagement rate is steady, it means your social team is resisting that pull of gravity, which means they're doing a good job, and possibly a great job if the engagement rate is rising (though you'd have to verify the authenticity of this). And also like gravity, the bigger your follower base gets, the stronger gravity becomes, and so eventually you'll reach a point where you just can't boost the engagement rate any more using legitimate or desirable methods.

Two, growth means change. Your company is going to expand into new products and content topics over time, and abandon old ones. This will change the makeup of what your company chooses to talk about on social. And whenever you start talking about something new (in an attempt to get new followers and business), some of the people who've been following you won't be interested in that new stuff, and thus your engagement rate indicators will suffer. So, if your company is planning to go into a new area, a modest dip need not necessarily be a cause of concern.

Three, if your growth targets are too stringent, your team might resort to buying or gaming your indicators. Gaming often means using a lot of clickbait and "Hey, look at me" tactics, or it can mean excessive targeting (i.e., narrowing the audience). The former looks cheap & cheesy (therefore wasting your brand equity), while the latter hinders your brandbuilding somewhat because new audiences won't see your content (where the value is in the waste).

Four, big pushes for followers or engagement tend to result in dips afterwards. In other words, you're not entirely getting more followers or engagement overall, you're partially stealing them from the future so that you can have more now. And five, if you focus heavily on follower growth, and have little engagement to go with it, your competitors will see this, and interpret it as a sign of your weakness.

Social Media Metrics Are Imperfect, But...

Of course, almost all of these indicators can be bought or gamed, but that only matters if your team is actually doing it. And before you ask, gaming the metrics is not aberrant or particularly rare. Every June and December, I see a flurry of valueless clickbait posted by brands you've heard of, clearly for the sole reason of making sure they don't miss their H1 or H2 social metric targets.

So don't be surprised if this goes on at your brand. And if it does, you need to teach your social people that their careers won't be made by it. That what happens the rest of the time with the indicators is what matters.

Of course, many hate them because these indicators are a bit opaque and imprecise. But we've had rampant digital/social ad fraud for years, which has been rendering all those supposedly more clear and actionable paid indicators that we spend our hard-earned money trying to optimize even more suspect.

In other words, digital should be considered an ingredient of success, not the recipe. If we can realign our perspective, we can view social metrics properly. In terms of them being publishing channels, they indicate the relative social media skill of your team. In terms of your brand, they represent a few performance indicators of your brand's health, among many.

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