To learn the real ins and outs of running social media audits, I sat down with marketing consultant and freelance writer Erika Heald. In this conversation, you’ll learn all about how to run a proper social media audit, get your client onboard with your findings, and turn those findings into a more-informed strategy going forward.

The following is a transcription of an audio interview.

I always like to start these interviews out by asking, what are you passionate about? What really drives you?

Gosh, that’s so hard because I have a lot of things I’m interested in. I’m big into the side hustle. Right now, one of my big driving issues is animal welfare; I volunteer for the SPCA. Also, gluten-free baking, because two years ago I found out I could no longer eat gluten, but I love baked treats and baking, so I had to figure that out. That’s been a huge passion.

Then I guess the big overarching one would be just finding out people’s’ interesting stories; pulling those stories out of people and sharing them.

Before we start on social media audits, you actually have a gluten-free baking blog, right?

I do, Erika’s Gluten Free Kitchen, because I figure if I was going to have to relearn how to bake, I was going to document it. That’s been so much fun.

Yeah, do you have a nice little community going around that?

Yes! A couple weeks ago, one of my friends said that his daughter has been making my chocolate chip cookie recipe every month, and that she’s just so excited to finally have a chocolate chip cookie recipe that looks like everybody else’s chocolate chip cookies. That, for me, I was like, “Oh, my God.” I got totally verklempt, because that’s so awesome, right?

Yeah, that must be so gratifying when you’re actually producing things that people are consuming and using.

Exactly. That’s what’s so cool about baking. In an hour or two, you have this concrete product. Whereas, a lot of the marketing we do, it could take weeks, months, years to really pay off.

So today we’re going to be talking about social media audits. First, can you explain in under a minute why businesses need to have a content and social media marketing plan in place to begin with?

The simple answer is, is if you don’t have a documented plan, you’re just engaging in random acts of marketing. If you’re doing marketing on social media without having defined goals and objectives, there’s absolutely no way that you can know that you were successful. So, you end up just wasting a lot of time and money, and not actually furthering your business goals.

How often do you suggest social media teams run an audit?

I would say you need to do a full audit every year. You want to do this in advance of doing your marketing planning for the following year. Then, I would say every quarter, you might be checking in to make sure that you’re hitting those milestones that you set as part of the audit. But I don’t think you need to do a full audit more frequently than once a year.

Okay, and when you say, “DO a full audit.” What does that encompass exactly? How would you structure an audit? And what sort of metrics and identifiers are you really looking for in that audit?

So, the first thing I do is go through and figure out all the different social media channels that are associated with the brand. That’s including both active channels and channels that are just sitting there with tumbleweeds. For instance, a lot of people have Google Plus accounts that are sitting there neglected.

In an annual audit I determine:

  • How many followers do they have for each account?
  • What’s their posting frequency?
  • What are the action items they should take?
  • Are there any accounts they need to close down?
  • Do they need to spruce up any accounts?
  • Do they need to take the four different Twitter accounts they have and slim them down into one?

Each quarter you should be running an audit based on prescriptive action items, goals, and KPIs – but in order to set sensible goals, you have to understand your competitive landscape. So, as part of every social audit I do, I look at people’s competitors, but also the people that are adjacent to them that they partner with, how are they doing on all those channels? And a lot of times you’ll find that there’s something that you’ve just missed. Like, “Oh, hey. They’re really active on this channel that we’re barely doing anything on. Maybe we should think about it.”

Then I look at whatever the metrics are that I’ve agreed upon with the client, such as engagement or clickthroughs. I map those out, and then have the rigor of looking at them on a month to month basis.

One often overlooked aspect of a social media audit is looking into the company executives’ social media. One of the weirdest things that I’ve found to be so prevalent is when companies are going through and spending all this energy on rebranding, frequently, they have executives who have LinkedIn profiles or Twitter profiles that they haven’t updated the bios on in years. They’ll say that they’re still an executive at a competitor. They’ll have old branding or old company names. Or they’ll have nothing, which is actually sometimes worst, because it seems that they’re not that invested in the company.

It’s so enlightening. People frequently have no idea that’s the case, that they have all these accounts out there with all these different job titles, so super important to do that.

With those executives, do you find you have a struggle trying to encourage them to engage more in social? Is that a big change for a lot of these people? How do you get them on board?

A lot of times with the executives, once you make the case that from a brand perspective you really could use their help, and you tie it back to the results and show, “Hey, from a competitive standpoint, look at the engagement their executives gain for their brand.” That gets their attention. You can also appeal to the vanity, “Hey, we’re working on your thought leadership program, but you don’t have a social media presence. That would be a fantastic way to start building those relationships with journalists.”

How do you like to organize your data to make it easy to interpret? Do you have a tried and true method of making sure everything’s organized and easy to interpret?

I actually have the same template that I’ve been using for about five years now, which sounds crazy, because five years in social media life is forever. Obviously, the rows will change, and which channels we’re talking about, but otherwise, nothing has changed. It’s just a Google spreadsheet with multiple tabs.

I have one tab for the audit for the brand. One for competitors. One for the social performance. One for the company executives’ social. And then one for content performance. I take that and then add in the data from Google analytics so that you can say, “All right. Here’s how many social shares we got. And here’s how that has also translated into how many views we’ve been getting from the traffic.” So that way you can really take a look at your content that you’re sharing, and understand if it’s resonating.

Yeah, brilliant, and obviously an indicator that you don’t need expensive tools to run a proper audit. You really just need the analytics from each network that you can access for free, right?

Yep, exactly. I have yet to find some analytics package that had everything I wanted. This has 100% been the best way for me to get what I need.

So you’ve done your audit. What are some common issues that you find a lot of your clients run into? Or that they’ve noticed about their social media marketing that is revealed once they do an audit?

I find the biggest thing is that they frequently find that they’re spending too much time on some channel that’s not getting them any return on their investment. That can frequently be something like Facebook. I’m not picking on Facebook, I’m just using it as an example, because people can get really sucked in and spend a bunch of time there, and not be able to actually tie it back to their results.

The other big thing I see is that there’s frequently a lot of information that is not consistent. So you look at somebody’s Twitter profile, and it has different information than the brand’s LinkedIn page, etc. Then it causes confusion. So whenever possible, I try to get folks to have the same handle name across all accounts if it’s available. Just having that consistency with the branding and bio so that way people know that it’s the same company.

Brands also frequently have dead channels. There’s a lot of advice out there about, “You just need to claim your name everywhere, because you don’t want a competitor to get it.” But as a consumer, when I go to a dead channel, that’s a huge bummer for me. What if Twitter is my favorite channel, and you never use Twitter. Then I’m going to feel like maybe that business doesn’t get me. Either that, or they’re out of business.

So you’ve run your audit, and you’ve got the quantitative part. So now from a qualitative standpoint, how do you then look at what content has performed well or not well and determine what aspect might have affected that performance?

I always go back on a quarterly basis and pull the creative of my top 10 pieces of content on each channel. You can then look at the different parts of the post separately and as a whole. You might notice that an image ran across multiple networks performed especially well on Twitter, or that your engagement was huge when you mentioned a client and linked to a piece of media coverage they received.

I always make sure I look at the actual body copy of the posts to see what’s really working there, and how well it works with the visuals. As for imagery, are people really liking more things that are animated? Or vector graphics? Or is it pictures of people or cute puppies? Of course, if there’s a cute puppy, it’s totally what won for that month, because dogs and cats, 100%, they will just steamroll over anything else.

You picked out your high performing content, but what about low performing? How can you go and make sure you learn from those and beef up your strategy for the next year?

As an example, if you’ve done a campaign for the holidays and it just doesn’t resonate, then make sure that you go and you look at your competitors’ campaigns, and see which ones did resonate. Were they really hot on the current meme? Or worse yet, did somebody do the exact same creative approach or topic that you went after, but did it first?

I do always try to look at the bigger context of things including what’s happening in the world, because if there’s a lot of collective anxiety, you could have amazing content, but it wasn’t the right time for it. So it’s hard, but it goes to show you there’s a lot more to things than just those numbers. You have to have the context around those numbers.

So you’ve run your audit, and now you need to present your analysis to your client. So how do you go about presenting that? And how do you make that meeting as constructive as possible?

I’m not going to make any friends by saying this, but you have to do a presentation deck. You’ve got to have a really nice, high-level presentation that you flip through that has pictures, all that creative that we were just talking about, put the picture of the best creative on there. And then you have your prescriptive high level, “Here’s what I think we should do.” In that deck. Then you follow it up with your leave behind, which is a one page (and only one) document that says, “Here’s what we learned. Here’s what we’re going to do with it. Here are the results we expect.”

I know it’s tempting to do more when you want to prove Social Media ROI, but don’t do it. People can’t digest that much information, and the more detail you give, the more likely it is someone’s going to find something they don’t like. Then it’s going to derail the whole process.

Yeah, and do you find in that type of format, that people are receptive? That they’re willing to sit through both the good and potentially what didn’t work, and going in there maybe with some constructive ideas for the future?

If you pretend everything is all peachy and nothing could be fixed, nobody will take you seriously. We all fail sometimes. Sometimes you have something that you’re so excited about, and it just bombs. It happens. I think by being willing to share what worked well, and what didn’t, they’re going to have so much more confidence in your ability to do your job. And they’re going to be so much more likely to actually support you in your plan.

I think being authentic, being honest and transparent about when things don’t work out, it helps you build a stronger relationship with your clients.

Of course. And so once you have this really great audit, how do you then translate your findings into an even stronger plan for next year?

Well, I look at, “Where did we spend our money on stuff that didn’t work?” and shift budget away from that and into what did work. You may also make an observation such as that the pieces you spent a lot of time on, such as video, were also your highest performing and decide to spend more time and resources on those. It doesn’t mean that that’s all that you do. But it means that you do more of them.

If you focus on content that requires a big time investment, you need to change your way of measuring success. If you only do one amazing big piece of content per month instead of doing a bunch of little things every week, it’s going to make your metrics look a little bit different. It might take more time. But it might also have that longer tail. So it’s really understanding what’s working, how is this new plan different from how we structured our plan for last year, and then when are we going to expect results to hit?

That’s the true value of running an audit, isn’t it? You just want to know, “Well, how am I going to attract this audience?” And I think by doing it every year and doing smaller ones every week or every month, that you really just stay on top of that, because it changes so frequently.

So frequently. Just even think about how Twitter just switched over to 280 characters.

I haven’t seen a lot of brands really put those extra characters to great use yet. But hopefully, it’ll mean that they’ll be able to really do stuff to connect better with their audience, because isn’t that why we’re on social? To connect with each other, including with brands? I’m not there to be marketed to, and I’m a marketer. But you know what? When a brand engages with me in a fun, authentic way, I remember that. And I get that warm fuzzy feeling.

Even just something as simple as, when somebody posts a love letter to your brand on social, you simply like it. Put a little heart. Just do that tiny little thing. It just pays dividends, because then people know that they’ve been heard. That’s what we want from social when we’re talking about a brand. We want to be heard.

It’s not like we’re trolling trying to get free gifts sent to our house, but we do want to know that that brand heard us, because unrequited love is crappy, right? We don’t want that.

Thanks for all these wonderful insights! One final question: Anyone who knows Erika from Content Marketing World knows that she’s a big of a self-professed geek. She’s a big fan of the World of Warcraft game franchise, which is a fantasy online game. So I just wanted to ask you, who is your favorite character in the whole Warcraft lore and why?

Oh, that’s so easy. I thought this was going to be hard.

Sylvanas WindrunnerOkay, so my favorite World of Warcraft character is Lady Sylvanas Windrunner. I love Sylvanas because she’s a strong female character. She’s currently the leader of the Horde, and had a really horrible, rotten circumstance thrust upon her (being made into an undead soldier). And instead of being poor me and so sad about it, she said, “All right, how can I make lemonade out of this? And how can I move forward and help other people who had this same unfortunate circumstance thrust upon them? How can I help them have better lives?” So that’s my thought and feeling. I love her.

Erika Heald is a San Francisco-based marketing consultant and freelance writer. She focuses on helping technology and specialty food startups define their content marketing strategy to drive lead generation and customer loyalty. Erika led and grew high-performance content marketing teams at Highwire PR, Anaplan, and Achievers. You can find her on her blogs erikaheald.com and erikasglutenfreekitchen.com, or hosting the weekly #ContentChat Twitter chat.