The New MRC Guidelines Are Here to Save Social Media Marketing from Itself


We’ve all been there: Seated in an upholstered folding chair in the middle of a hotel conference room, watching a social media marketing case study that rattles off slide after slide of glorious – and seemingly impossible – results.

As you sit there, gazing at the gillions of impressions, you wonder, “How did they come up with these? Are they counting the same way as in the previous presentation? And the one before that? How do my campaign results truly stack up to those of all these speakers and award winners, which seem so inflated?”

New Guidelines

In an announcement that was mostly overshadowed by snazzy holiday campaigns and apocalyptic coverage of marketing’s ad-blocked future, the Media Rating Council (MRC) – in partnership with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), the 4As and the IAB – released a new set of guidelines for social media measurement. The document outlines agreed-upon nomenclature, definitions and best practices for measuring the impact of social media marketing.

Measurement can be awfully dry, but it’s critical that we focus on social media measurement now. The MRC’s new guidelines provide a precious opportunity for social to grow up and be taken seriously. These new standards are here to save our industry from itself.

* A key distinction: “potential” versus “estimated actual” reach.

Probably the most helpful aspect of the guidelines is their definition of key metrics, none more important than those related to reach. Because of the difficulty of knowing how many friends and followers see a consumer’s personal post or tweet, marketers’ agencies and partners have tended to assume all of them do, and to report those imagined views as “impressions.” Under the new MRC guidelines those are aptly named “potential impressions” and are recommended for planning purposes at most, never reporting. For post-campaign measurement, the guidelines allow for “estimated actual impressions,” an educated guess for the number of true views, with assumptions (such as the average impressions per post on a particular platform) disclosed and empirically supported.

* A lens for comparing apples to apples — and holding partners accountable.

The MRC was established by Congress in the 1960s to get TV measurement in order and has gone on to clean up the rest of major media since then, most recently tackling digital and mobile before social. But adoption and enforcement of any new media measurement standards need help from the buy side. Marketers need to hold their agencies and vendors accountable. They need to ask if their reporting complies with the MRC guidelines, and if they don’t get a good answer (that is, they don’t get the transparency and definitions and practices the guidelines call for) they need to move on to new partners. For our part at WOMMA, we will be ensuring that every case study we showcase – on our site, in our webinars, at our conferences and, most of all, with our awards – adhere to the guidelines. We urge other organizations to do the same.

The Power of Social

Once the measurement of social media grows up, the true power of social, especially the power of earned (consumer-to-consumer) media, can finally shine through. Sloppy, inflated measurement has obscured it, but study after study for decades has shown that consumer advocacy is the most powerful advertising. Last year, WOMMA helped quantify this power through a landmark market mix modeling study of six blue-chip brands. The study found that word of mouth impressions drive sales at least five times more than paid.

Now that social media marketing is acting responsibly, it can take its rightfully prominent place in the marketing mix. It’s about time.



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