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Measuring Community: KPIs and Social Media Metrics for Community Building

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Community Building KPIs (How Do You Measure This Stuff?)

This is probably the question that we get asked more than anything else. Whenever we are speaking, talking to potential clients, or even refining our own internal processes the question of how to effectively measure community building efforts inevitably comes up.

The inherent challenge is that when you’re measuring community building efforts, you’re trying to measure things that are mostly intangible. Community building is fundamentally about relationships. How do you conduct a cost-benefit analysis on a relationship?

We don’t go up to a friend and say, “Well, it took me a cumulative sixty-eight hours of conversation, sixteen cups of coffee, and a birthday cake to go from being an acquaintance to a close friend (as defined by the discovery of common ground and the mutual exchange of confidences). However, I have derived 1.21 gigawatts of emotional satisfaction, three new friends, eight book recommendations, and three homemade dinners in return. Also, if I hadn’t been at your house eating one of those dinners, I would instead have been on the freeway during the thirteen car pile-up last month.”

It just doesn’t work like that.

So we can’t really measure relationships, however we can most certainly measure engagement. Engagement, especially positive engagement, can be a great indicator of relationships – their number, their depth, their add-on benefits. In short, measuring engagement is probably the closest you can get to measuring relationships. Which is why it won’t surprise you to know that the practical methods of measuring engagement are the focus of this post.

Here are the three key facts to keep in mind as you continue reading:

  1. Revenue purely from community building efforts is difficult (if not impossible) to measure directly.
  2. However, these efforts do have a huge impact on brand awareness and, ultimately, sales and conversions.
  3. Although we can’t measure revenue as directly, we can certainly see if what we are doing is working.

Make sense? If you’re skeptical, I understand. Just hang in there a minute, and I’ll do my best to explain how you prove your value when you can’t measure ROI.

This starts with a more in-depth look at just why traditional ROI metrics don’t really help you calculate the value of your community building efforts.

Traditional ROI Metrics

Traditional ROI metrics are the standards that your PPC team lives and dies by. You know, tracking each click-through and then assigning it a value to determine how the ad converts. But when applied to traditional social measures, they really don’t work. What you’ll find if you exclusively use these measurements is that your ROI is actually pretty small. You’ll get depressed and declare from the rooftops, “Community building doesn’t work!”

Einstein once said that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is a failure. Well, community building is like a fish – and there’s a whole big ocean to explore.

Imagine you had a PPC campaign that required you to write a new ad every single time it was displayed. That’s basically what many in the web marketing industry do with social. They try to use it like a direct-to-conversion PPC campaign, then they get frustrated and write off the entire platform when they don’t get the ROI they want.

Well, first off, social should never be managed like a PPC campaign. If you’ve been trying to get a clearly defined ROI using the traditional conversion metrics, you’ll (almost always) be disappointed. If you promise your clients that you’ll be able to directly track the value that you are adding via social, you’ll also be disappointed (and, more urgently, so will they).

It’s not that you can’t track success (you most certainly can), it’s that you need to understand what actually qualifies as success with social media. Because that success absolutely looks different than other marketing avenues.

Here’s what I mean by that: if you meet the web average on your SEO, social media, and other marketing efforts, the traffic to your site might look something like this.


If you’re competing for marketing dollars head-to-head against SEO and paid search which contribute such significant portions of the traffic, you’re going to lose if you base your budget on simple conversion based ROI. Why would any manager in their right mind give you community building dollars when social media only generates about 2% of your traffic? But of course this is just one metric.

If you just look at this graph in isolation, you can see how social media can be viewed as a disappointment. Social takes a lot of time and effort and the tangible returns are difficult to spot.

Here’s the thing though. Community building is a long process, but the end result is worth it if you invest the resources to do it right. And you can prove that, if you shift your perspective just a little bit.

An Alternate ROI Metric: Customer Acquisition Cost

Of course if you’re running a business, you don’t want to spend your marketing budget on developing content and building community out of the kindness of your heart (if you do, that’s awesome, but you should maybe consider a different line of work, like professional philanthropy). Your content developers and community builders still need to show value for the work that you’ve been paying for.

One of our favorite metrics for tracking long term benefits of community building is a significantly reduced customer acquisition cost. As you begin building your community and investing in content, you not only drive some conversions, but you also begin to build your brand, brand equity, and recognition. The more familiar your name becomes, the less effort you have to make to attract individual customers. Moz itself has mentioned their customer acquisition cost as a major benefit of their community building and content creation campaigns.

Customer acquisition cost is simply how much it costs to acquire your customer. To find this, simply add up your marketing and sales budgets for a particular period of time (including all salaries and other overhead costs) and then divide this total by the number of customers you land during that time frame. We’ll talk about this in detail a little later, but if you’d these metrics are completely new and you’d like a basic introduction, well, try this article from Inc. Magazine.

Now we’ve all heard about Moz, but using community building and inbound marketing to reduce customer acquisition cost is not limited to the web marketing industry. The folks over at have been building a community for years. They make software plugins for Adobe After Effects and other video programs, but they have been able to leverage content (specifically blogging and tutorials) to help build a foundational community and become a go-to resource for people who use After Effects. All their content is quality and they’ve been able to drive sales with very little traditional marketing. (in fact, according to a quick Google search, they are currently ranked one, two, and three for After Effects tutorials and that’s without any obvious PPC advertising or other paid measures).

By using their knowledge to build a community they’ve managed to attract After Effects users to their site. And, what a coincidence! The ideal customers for their actual paid products just happen to be…After Effects users. See how that works? They’ve carved out their own unique niche market using just content to build their community.

It’s not always that straightforward: often community builders will have to share the credit with a variety of other sources. But Video Copilot makes for an excellent example of how the technique works. This kind of success can be shared by community builders to demonstrate their value, even without a direct conversion ratio.

Customer acquisition cost is just one example of an alternate metric you can demonstrate. If you’re looking in the right place, there are many, many others.

There are three basic categories of metrics we’ll be discussing: social metrics, content based metrics, and ROI related metrics.

Social Metrics:

With social metrics, there are two basic things we’re measuring for: applause and engagement. These both manifest in different ways but overall, those are the goals.


This is the number of people who +1, Like, or Favorite a post. Applause is nice. It means that what we’ve shared as struck a chord with your audience. It’s a little bit of a vanity metric, especially since these are fairly passive and undemanding forms of recognition on the part of your audience, but it indicates that people are watching and enjoying. That you’re getting notice and attention. When you shift your success paradigm away from direct revenue and into brand recognition and awareness, notice and attention are…kind of important.


Engagement can be measured in several different ways. Here are some of the most common:

Click-throughs – If you’re sharing links or photos, how many people actually even look at them? It’s probably fewer than you think. Two of the tools we use in house to measure click throughs (and to just promote content in general) are Buffer and Hootsuite. also offers some awesome measurement features, including some slick custom URL shorters.

Shares – If somebody shares what you’re doing, that means they care. At least a little. It also means that they think their audience finds it interesting. This is a tiny step beyond the applause metrics, since it demands not just viewing but actual effort on the part of the sharer.

Comments – Comments are a great way to measure engagement. If the point is to actually begin building relationships, comments are one of the best ways to do so. Good comments allow you to see the perspective that your audience brings to the content. What are their questions? What are their challenges? Any good conversation goes two ways; you want your content to start a conversation, not a monologue.

One of the tools we’ve been experimenting with for measuring these things is called (conveniently enough) TrueSocialMetrics. So far we’re impressed with the data, but the jury is still out.

Content Related Metrics

When we’re measuring the success of our content, we mostly want to know which pieces do people read/view/watch and what people are doing the reading/viewing/watching. For this type of information, our favorite and most valuable indicators are micro conversions and advanced segments.


Using your available data, set up microconversions for key actions. These could be file downloads, watched videos, etc. To see more information and to dig in deeper with microconversions, check out Avinash’s blog. He does a great job breaking down site goal values in more detail.

Advanced Segments

One of the simplest yet most underutilized (at least in my experience) tools is just plain old Google Analytics. Google Analytics provides a monstrous amount of data and making the most of it is just a matter of figuring out how to use the filtering tools, like Advanced Segments.

If you want your community to exist on your own site, using segments to figure out the users to a specific part of the site (for example the /blog/ subfolder might be a good one to track) could be a great way to see returning visitors to your community building content, as opposed to your home page or even products pages. As Google Analytics becomes more user focused, we can also expect that we’ll have even more information to pull from these advanced segments.

This is a tool we use ourselves on the Mack Web blog. We created an advanced segment that pulls data only on those people who are visitors to the /blog/ page.

The natural instinct is to obsess over new visitors. ‘Hey, look how many more people think we’re awesome today than yesterday!’ And it’s true, new visitors are wonderful, but here’s the cold, hard facts: many of them just drop by for the moment, then are distracted by Facebook or Pinterest, never to be seen again.

So while it’s exciting to find out about new users, what we really want to know is how many people return. It is usually the returning visitors who actually are the ones involved in your community. They are the ones who read and comment on your blogs. They are the ones who share your stuff on social. And they are usually the ones that actually buy something.

Again, there are many more numbers to track to get the full picture, but these two are the ones we like the best.

ROI Related Metrics

I know, I know. I said this was the hardest to measure and I meant it. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t keep an eye out for them. The trick, as I demonstrated above with customer acquisition cost, is to shift your definition of success away from direct revenue and into other rubrics. Brand equity and direct conversion, which can, if calculated correctly, be assigned dollar values have their place here.

So, too, do microconversions. And here is a word of warning that before you dive into the Big List: a lot of these metrics can cross categories and contribute information to more than one kind of success. So…keep an open mind.

As Promised: The Definitive List of Metrics

Social Metrics


When someone visits your Twitter, Facebook, or G+ page, this is one of the first things that they see. Followers can indicate credibility and brand recognition. A brand with 100,000 followers is generally considered more trustworthy than a brand with 700 followers.

That said, you want your followers to be real. So don’t go to Fiverr and spend $10 on 1,000 followers. Those people won’t share your stuff, they won’t interact with you, and they most certainly won’t buy what you’re selling. It’s much better to build your online community with real people, not bots. It’s a double bonus if they are engaged followers.

We generally consider followers as a portion of the brand equity. How many real people are you reaching? Are they engaging with what you are doing?

Social Shares

Another easy-to-measure metric is social shares. In the olden days, before brands took over Twitter, individuals shared stuff because they thought it was interesting, unique, or neat. Nowadays many brands plaster things all over social media because they feel like they need something to share. They promote quantity over quality.

That said, sharing should not be completely devalued as a measure of your success. If your brand regularly produces great content, you can still gain the validation granted by others sharing your content.

(Helpful tip: Generally speaking, business-to-business companies see a lot of success with “helpful” content (topical blogs, whitepapers, etc.). Consumer focused brands tend to see a lot of traction with amazing, fascinating, or funny content).

Validation aside, social shares also help you understand what your customers respond to. At Mack Web, we consider this technically an applause metric, but it’s still more valuable than a simple like. With a share, someone is actually willing to pass on something you’ve created or said to their followers. That’s honestly quite the honor. If we had to choose between likes and shares, we’d pick shares every time.

Applause (+1s, Likes, Favorites)

That said, applause is nice. It helps boost your self esteem, and it even impacts how your posts show up on Facebook. It’s useful to measure, just to see what gets your followers’ attention. Generally speaking, self focused (or brand focused) posts tend to get far more likes than shares. If you’re talking about yourself all the time, people may “like” it, but they certainly won’t share it.

So take note of applause, but aim for shares.

Traffic to Site (from social channels in general)

Google Analytics has a handy little feature that allows you to measure the visits to your site by social network. We have this graph setup with a custom dashboard for all of our clients. As mentioned above, this number may not be much above 2% – as it is for the average – or it could climb to the 25% it is for the Mack Web blog.

When looking at traffic to the site, it can also be helpful to filter it by the landing page. We have a client that allows users to create their own content and then share it on social. If users follow that content back to its home in the archive on the site, it still registers as traffic from social. That muddies the waters on measuring the social traffic from our campaigns.

Once we started segmenting the data to figure out what landed on our conversion focused landing pages instead of the content archive, we were able figure out how effective our actual campaigns were compared to the hundreds and thousands of visits from random social content shares.

Click-Throughs (Site bios and shared links)

Click-through rates are incredibly important for the content that you share. If no one is clicking on the link to the content or checking out your bio or credentials, you likely aren’t exciting the interest of your followers. Sharing content helps give you credibility, but if no one is clicking the links, you aren’t adding much value beyond the proof that you exist.

The first thing we check when click through rates are low is the content itself. Is this the content your target audience wants to see? If not, then you should adjust. (Hopefully if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve created a set of audience personas to guide you, right?)

The second thing we look at is the post or tweet wording. Sometimes our titles and headlines are boring. If I wouldn’t want to click-through, why would anyone else?! So make sure you have great headlines.

Brand Mentions (with sentiment analysis)

If you have any kind of loyal followers, they will likely be talking about your brand. So be sure to listen. We use HootSuite to set up keyword searches for our brand. This allows us to get see what is being said about us out on the interwebs.

If you want to break down the details, count how many times your brand is mentioned over a month. Then divide each of those mentions into positive, negative, and neutral columns. This allows you to get a more objective view of how people are mentioning your brand.

Set goals to minimize the negative mentions and maximize the positive mentions. And when appropriate…

Brand Conversations

Join the conversation!!! Don’t just watch, but contribute. Have something to say. If there was a “you’re awesome” mention, respond with a “thank you”. If there are complaints and negativity, do your best to rectify the situation.

People like knowing that they’ve been heard. Again, you can quantitatively count the number of brand mentions, responses, and interactions. If you operate a support handle, you probably want to make it a company goal to minimize the tweets you get (as well as all other support calls) by fixing the product or issue. If you’re just responding to mentions, you may want more mentions as it brings additional brand recognition.

Content Related Metrics

Visits, Views, Pageviews, etc.

I’m not even going to talk about this one…except to repeat:

You should certainly be measuring the returning visits to your content pages. For Mack Web, this is our blog. Measuring returning visits helps you understand how many people routinely come back to read your stuff. To help, we use the Krux SMB plugin for WordPress that divides visitors up by new, regulars, occasionals, or fans. This helps us see which visitors return and which are new.

Image Pulled from the Krux SMB Data Platform

In Analytics, we also created a custom segment that just looks at the /blog/ page (where most of the relevant and fresh content resides). Using this segment we can take a look at the number of new visits and unique visits.

We find a difference of 418 people. That means that about 24% of our traffic came from people who have already been to our site (this confirms the Krux number above so we can verify our data).


Comments are one of our favorite ways to measure community on the Mack Web site. With comments, you bring the conversation to your own site, giving you awesome opportunities to have a huge amount of influence. The number of comments and interactions you have is a great way to gauge your thought leadership and influence.

Two things we suggest looking at are New Commenters and Repeat Commenters. This helps you understand if you have people who are continually returning to comment on your site or whether you are just leaving one time comment. There is a wonderful plugin developed by Yoast to help you track basic blog metrics. Unfortunately, it doesn’t track repeat commenters. If you know of a good way to do this easily, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, it’s a matter of keeping track of the names you see over and over.

Beyond comments on your own blogs, you can also track YouTube, Facebook, and G+ comments. If people ask questions, be sure to get on and engage. Sure, allowing comments on these channels can set you up for criticism, but without any commenting, you’ll be sure to never build a solid community. There will always be haters. Ignore them.

RSS Subscribers

This is pretty straightforward: how many people are subscribed to your blog? These are people who aren’t just interested in something that you said, they’re interested in what you have to say. They’re interested in you.

Email Subscribers

Again, these are people who have given you permission to share stuff with them. Be sure to justify their faith in you: add value to their lives, don’t just send salesy messaging all the time.

User Influencers

On the strategic side of community building, it can be really helpful to understand who the key influencers are for your products. We use FollowerWonk for this.

ROI Related Metrics

Direct conversions

Almost all of you know how to calculate direct conversions. There are numerous ways to do it using Google Analytics. For a more in-depth understanding of tracking direct conversions and crediting social with conversions, we refer you the ever-informative Justin Cutroni.

The first step is setting up goals in Google Analytics. If you have an ecommerce, SaaS, or other direct purchase site, setting up analytics and tracking conversions should be easy. And you should certainly do it. Just don’t judge your community building efforts by this one metric alone.

Customer Acquisition Cost

We already mentioned this one above, but allow us to repeat it for the sake of clarity: the biggest (financial) advantage to building a community can be measured by customer acquisition cost. It’s a perspective shift from sales revenue, but it’s pretty easy to explain: if you have people willing to listen to what you say without having to buy their attention, you’re in great shape.

In order for the customer acquisition cost to be truly useful we must compare it to the average lifetime value of our customers. We can then compare how much it costs us to get a customer with how much we actually make from that customer.

To illustrate, look at these graphs:

Image Credit For Entrepreneurs

Both of these metrics are incredibly important for your business. This is quite simply another way of asking “are we going to be making money?”

In order to help you calculate these metrics, we created this handy little spreadsheet. It is pretty self explanatory, but we’d be happy to answer any questions in the comments.

Brand Equity

Brand equity is a measure of how much extra someone is willing to pay to get your branded product instead of an equivalent. Although the actual measurements and calculations are beyond the scope of this article (maybe we’ll cover it in a future article…after we figure it out), it is still something to consider.

We’ll take a simple example. Almost everyone I’ve met (except for my grandma) is willing to pay the extra ~$0.25 for a Coke versus the generic store brand. The store brand is cheaper, but people still choose Coke. That is brand equity.

To dig in a little deeper, start at the Wikipeida entry on brand equity. It gives a nice overview and links out to a variety of helpful sources. Calculating true brand equity is a complicated process that involves surveys, industry understanding, and extensive research that is beyond the scope of this course.

If you’re involved in a large national brand, chances are you have some brand valuation calculations. Talk to your marketing team to see if you can get a list of these valuations.

For all of us, household names or fledgling brands, community building should contribute to overall brand equity.

Micro Conversions

Within the ROI category, you can also measure microconversions. Based on averages and data extrapolation, we can determine an approximate value of several microconversion actions across the site. See Avinash’s blog for a more in depth breakdown.

The Measurement Obsession

It’s a great list, but here’s the sad but simple truth: for precisely the reasons listed above, community building is always going to be a hard sell. The traditional ways of measuring ROI do not adequately capture the benefit in a dollars-and-cents manner but traditional ROI remains the universally understood standard for any marketing efforts.

“Marketers are rapidly learning what works best for their brands and they look to remain nimble and move to adopt new opportunities,” said Bob Liodice, president and CEO of ANA, “Platforms offering the most tangible ROI will be favored by marketers moving forward. It is imperative for the industry to standardize measurement practices for digital, social and mobile markets.”

The problem is we instinctively assume that the most tangible is the most effective. This isn’t inherently true. Tangible makes us feel better. Tangible helps us predict a good ROI, but brand loyalty, relationships, and other key foundations of community are inherently intangible but almost incalculably invaluable. We can conduct surveys and look at indicators like all of those we’ve just listed, but as it stands, there is no perfect measure.

The metrics we’ve listed aren’t really new or groundbreaking. You’re probably already tracking some, if not all of them. The job of community builders is to educate our clients (or our bosses depending on if we’re in-house or an agency) and help shift the definition of success away from direct sales revenue and into the invaluable alternatives and intangibles.

What are your thoughts? How else do you measure the ROI on your social media and community building efforts?


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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Hannah Smith says:

    Tyler, this post is fantastic 🙂

    Just out of interest – do you also advocate measuring brand awareness and/or brand perception?

    I’m a fan, although I recognise it’s important to note that social media activity is unlikely to be 100% responsible for any uplift (unless there’s literally no other activity undertaken).

    • Tyler Brooks says:

      Hi Hannah,

      Thanks for the encouragement! 🙂

      As far as measuring brand awareness, the answer is a resounding YES! This is certainly a metric we need to keep in mind. It’s also something that we’re working on figuring out for our clients.

      A challenge is that most traditional ways of measuring brand awareness were designed for major consumer brands. If you’re not one of those major brands, I haven’t found many models that work well. But we’re continuing to dig and see what we can find.

      As far as social media generating the uplift, this can be difficult to gauge. If you’re working for a client that thinks in terms of campaigns, it makes it a little easier to track. When reviewing the success of a campaign, I would first look at the percent of impressions (and shares) that a campaign gets overall (most marketing departments should have this info). Then I’d compare your social reach to the reach of the overall campaign to get some rough idea of the lift generated via social. You could also do this on non-campaign efforts, but it’s a little more difficult and fuzzier to measure.

  • Joel says:

    I’m desperately trying to understand this area, and really liked this article. Our ROI needs are not monetary, but I still want to quantify the investment my institution is making in our online instructor community. So, I’m reading and simultaneously trying to translate this to our context.
    I’m thinking “conversions” for us are online instructors that identify strongly with the university (despite their remoteness), and translate value they get from the community into better teaching practice. Of course since we don’t provide all the value we also want to measure their contributions of value to the community.
    Thanks for this well-written post. It gives me lots of food for thought…and translation.

    • Tyler Brooks says:

      Hi Joel,

      Thanks for your comment. This post was primarily geared at gauging an actual financial ROI, but I think some of the concepts will apply to your situation. The first question I would ask you is: What are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish? When we work with clients, we help them outline their goals for community building. Usually these boil down to some combination of branding and sales goals.

      Within your education community, what are you trying to accomplish? Obviously you want to educate, but what does that look like? Without goals, it’s really hard to know whether you are moving in the right direction or not. Once you have goals, you can then look for a few key performance indicators (KPIs) to help you measure your success. This post was primarily about those KPIs, but without goals you’ll not be able to get a good set of KPIs to measure.

      Without knowing more about your particular context, I can’t provide a ton of detail, but it’s exciting for me to see someone who is passionate about building community in the online education sphere. There are so many unique opportunities in this space to connect with users, and we’ve already see a huge rise in online education over the past decade.

      If you’d like to chat more, feel free to shoot me an email at tyler -at-

  • Eric Sztanyo says:


    This is an incredibly helpful article and list, but I’m feeling overwhelmed by a few areas. Wondering if you can help me out:

    1. Seems like you are using several different tracking tools – how do you keep these all organized? Do you lean on one more than others (Google Analytics)? Do you use Moz Analytics?

    2. I don’t know where to start for Community KPIs. Per the Mackweb Guide, I have non-revenue goals our brand has created, but I don’t what KPIs to set that will help us get to those goals. What levels of engagement/applause are too big? Too small? Any guide for a new brand setting it’s goals and KPIs?


    • Tyler Brooks says:

      Hey Eric!

      Good questions! I’ll do my best to give you some guidance based upon what we’ve learned over the past few months.

      1. As far as tools go, I’m a huge Google Analytics fan. It is my go-to tool for most of the work we do. In addition to the main options in GA, I’ve created dozens of custom dashboards that focus on certain metrics. For example, I have a dashboard dedicated to social media. I have a dashboard dedicated to SEO and organic traffic. TrueSocialMetics is also a powerful tool in our arsenal on the social side. We use Moz Analytics mainly for the keyword information we can pull of it, and I haven’t really tried to integrate the rest of it into our workflow. There are a ton of tools out there, and we’re always experimenting with different options. The trick is to figure out what metrics you want to see apart from the tool, and then use the tool to get there. At Mack Web, we talk about Goals before Tools all the time. Figure out what you want to know, then use the right tool to get there.

      2. Even as we were writing this post, we were still struggling with some of these questions. Our big step forward came in the form of a framework (that I link to below). As far as where to start, first figure out what kinds of interactions you would like to see. Would you like to see comments? Downloads? What do you believe (or know) that will lead to more growth and engagement for your company?

      Once you have those selected, do some benchmarking for your brand. What is your applause rate now? There aren’t really any true “ranges” for these metrics. It’s dependent on your business. The only person to compare yourself to is your past self.

      After writing this post, I wrote a more recent post on how we are using the See, Think, Do framework in our reporting. This was by far one of the best things we began doing reporting in 2013, and I think we’re going to stick with this for a long time. It really began to fill in a lot of holes for us and give us direction in how we go about reporting.

      Hope that helps!

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