Monday, April 20, 2009

How to Research Social Media...

As a social media analyst, there are a number of constantly evolving challenges associated with how to perform research on the overall impact of Web 2.0 sites on business, politics, and culture.

Take, for example, the following statistics which amplify the rise of social media as a force to be reckoned with, courtesy of Mashable...

  • Facebook has grown from 100 million to 200 million users in less than 8 months. If it were a country, it would be bigger than Brazil.

  • Nielsen Online’s latest research shows that social networking is now more popular than email. According to their study, 66.8% of Internet users have used social networks, while only 65.1% have used email.

  • In March, YouTube (YouTube reviews) reached 100 million monthly viewers in the US. 6.3 billion videos were viewed on the site. According to some calculations, YouTube will serve 75 billion video streams to 375 million unique visitors in 2009.

  • Twitter itself is growing at a crazy rate; although it already has a very large audience, it grew 76.8 percent just from February to March. Its yearly growth rate? 1,382 percent. According to Nielsen, Twitter currently has 7 million unique monthly visitors. If it keeps growing at this rate, it’ll have nearly 100 million visitors same time next year.

  • As far as social news sites go, Digg’s recently launched DiggBar has increased the site’s traffic by 20%, or so they claim. And, according to Compete, Digg is at 36 million uniques and growing fast again, despite a dip in traffic in February. Frequently cited as Digg’s main competitors, Reddit and StumbleUpon (StumbleUpon reviews) are also growing, but they have a long way to go before they come anywhere close to Digg.

For researchers, these numbers serve to illustrate the growing need for accurate data collection in social media. Most website operators track basic information directly related to their site, such as number of page hits, unique visitors, and incoming traffic sources. However, the whole notion of "social" media demands that data also be collected on how much people are talking about and referring to your site on other networks as well.

This is a monstrous challenge that nobody has yet been able to 100% crack. Some helpful ideas include using a Greasemonkey script called the "Social Media Metrics Plugin" - which displays the number of diggs, reddits, bookmarks, and stumbleupons for your pages side-by-side with the classic metrics of page hits and unique visitors on Google Analytics.

Also, another helpful tool is Blippr, which can provide quantitative data regarding the buzz around your site by aggregating qualitative reviews. Likewise, the Twitter search engine can provide one with a sense of how much certain topics or sites are being discussed in cyberspace at any given time.

One of my favorite social media researchers on Twitter is Dan Zarrella, who conducts fascinating experiments on social-networking sites. His blog lists some great tools as well.

What social media research really boils down to is understanding that website traffic is no longer adequate enough of a metric to determine the popularity of a given website or topic. Functionally speaking, we have moved beyond the need to only track website engagement, and instead have to additionally consider tracking wider internet campaigns.

This idea that "campaigns", rather than simply websites, have come to define internet popularity is an essential starting assumption from which more accurate research can then proceed.


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