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Social Media Metrics revisited: How do you measure engagement?

Working on last month's column, about the Milwaukee Police Department's move toward ending its morning press briefings in favor of a blog, I stated: “Any publisher, whether news organization, police department or individual, must beware not to fall into the numbers trap: page clicks or ratings are poor metrics for engagement, and high numbers don't indicate concern.”

Putting aside MPD's media relations issues for the moment, consider the press briefing. Easy to measure from month to month: you can easily see how many reporters show up, who they are, and afterward, what kinds of stories they write—not just about you, but about other topics, whether they're general-assignment or assigned to the crime beat.

Conceivably that should make it easier to approach these reporters, build relationships and frame your story according to what they seem to care about, in a way that highlights what you care about. Shouldn't you be able to do the same on social media?

What is online engagement? What does it mean?

Page views are not the same as information absorption. Not even time (spent) on site is the same. Granted, neither is showing up at your briefing.

But at least with a physical presence, you can gauge audience receptivity (note-taking or recording, attentive gazes, etc.) Online, the path from Point A (information offered) to Point B (media coverage) is not as linear. Numerous metrics are associated with websites, blogs and social media: visits and unique visitors, page views and pages per visit, time on site, bounce rate, return visitors.

Install Google Analytics and you could spend hours poring over site statistics. And yet, even Google's definition of “engagement” is flawed: Analytics measures the number of seconds spent on the site, but as many social media experts would argue, true “engagement” is more about conversation and conversion.

Conversation you know: talk about the subject. The equivalent to questions asked during your press briefing, conversation online means comments on your blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ pages.

You can measure conversation about your agency on most media websites. Even though you don't own those resources, and it can be a time-consuming process, when it's important you can take note of the number of comments left on a story about your agency, as well as their sentiment (positive, neutral or negative).

Conversions, however, are the actions people take as a result of your blog or tweet(s) or other shares—that you want them to take. In a law enforcement context, conversions are the tip-line calls made as a result of your Facebook mug shot posts, or the retweets of your wanted-person blog link.

Conversions are a deeper form of engagement, because they mean that readers trust your content enough to do what you're asking them to (share with their friends, call you, attend a neighborhood watch meeting, etc.). Unlike conversations, which can “generate more heat than light,” conversions really mean something to your goals.

Matching online to offline, short term to long term

And yet, conversions and their metrics can remain stuck in the short term. What do those phone calls, shares and meeting attendances mean? In other words, what are you hoping to accomplish over the long term, by having citizens take these actions? What do the actions mean for improving police-community relations, or public safety overall?

Remember, citizens who act on your behalf do so with an end result in mind. Assuming you're not offering a reward, they act because they know they're contributing to a safer community. But that incentive assumes that you are overseeing a much larger effort, working to make the community safer overall.

As you're measuring website statistics, and with them comments both on your own and media resources, consider two things:

1. How to link online to offline: to place online relationships in context of real-world outcomes.

This will likely be easier to do with specific public safety problems than it will with overall police-community relationships. Take for example, the need to end vehicle fatalities on a particular road. The three-pronged “education, engineering, enforcement” approach might link online educational elements (videos, tweets, blog posts, etc.) to driving behavior—and perhaps even enforcement metrics. A drop in ticketing for certain violations could be strongly correlated to education.

2. Whether your long-term goals are reactive, or proactive.

Many police departments in recent years have shifted back towards a reactive policing strategy. The above example is an example of that: it's about solving a specific problem. What happens when fatalities end on that stretch of road? Will the online education and engagement continue around traffic safety? How might you adapt your campaign to be more generalized, yet still interesting to the citizens who are participating?

You might have guessed by now that online engagement isn't an end in itself—it's part of a broader picture. Not long ago, Governing magazine reported that Washington, DC police chief Cathy Lanier had changed her agency's strategy from zero-tolerance, hot-spot policing to engagement:

“Instead of cracking down on minor disorder in high-crime neighborhoods,” the article reported, “she encouraged patrol officers to develop sources. At the same time, the department embraced social media and encouraged a savvy population to engage with police in new ways.”

Merging online with offline engagement, and short-term with long-term programs, can take considerable thought and effort. However, it's necessary to prove that what you're doing is much more than “just a fad.”


About The Author:

Christa M. Miller is a freelance writer based in Greenville, S.C. She specializes in law enforcement and digital forensics and can be reached at