As social media networks evolve and expand, what happens to the priority of marketer’s metrics?

The advent of social media has reinvented many elements of marketing, including the balance of reach and engagement strategies. Marketers have prioritized both in their quest to track the effectiveness of social media, though the metrics haven’t historically shared the same priority.

“Two years ago, likes and followers were metrics that drove social media marketing campaigns,” explains Jeff Revoy, CEO and president of social management platform Viralheat. “Recently, those metrics have been deemed shallow, and the focus has switched to generating content and increasing the amount of engagement between businesses and their audiences.”

The relationship here isn’t so different from that of email open rates and click-throughs. Customers that click, or otherwise engage with content actively convey their interest in that content. That said, users don’t open emails for nothing. That action indicates some level of interest in the world of email marketing. In social media marketing, reach and impressions are deemed much more vain. “Reach is simply a measure of how many people had the opportunity to see your content; in other words, the content passed through their Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook feed,” says Hal Thomas, content director at creative communications agency BFG.

The problem with reach is in the inherent instability of the Web. As popular networks such as Facebook and Twitter continue to iterate their content streams, reach becomes increasingly ambiguous. “Reach is becoming a much harder metric to track as social channels start to extend themselves beyond their respective streams,” says Craig Elimeliah, SVP and  director of creative technology at customer experience agency RAPP. “Marketers are going to have to become more creative in how to measure true reach as opposed to simply measuring against the native stream itself.”

By contrast, engagement is often easier to understand and influenced less by the whims of developers. “Measuring the effectiveness of content that’s designed to maximize engagement is a simple matter of looking at whether or not the content prompted the response you were seeking,” BFG’s Thomas says.

“Engagement rate truly depends on the how active or interested the audience is,” adds Viralheat’s Revoy. However, does this mean engagement should somehow universally trumps reach? Given the complexity of the medium in question, is a simple “yes” or “no” even possible?

“Reach versus engagement is equivalent to quantity versus quality. Both approaches have their benefits, depending on what your main goal is,” says Ricardo Diaz, director of digital at creative agency Zambezi. “Reach costs more money and engagement is a harder to attain. Having a solid understanding of your brand’s objective can help you choose which approach is best.”

Indeed, it makes perfect sense to emphasize reach in an awareness campaign; just as a more action-oriented campaign may prioritize engagement. Industry plays a key role, as well. “Shallow metrics such as likes and followers are notoriously lower for B2B brands or companies that are not heavily consumer-focused,” Revoy explains. “The Coca-Colas, Gaps, and Disneys of the world will always have higher metrics than the Oracles and Salesforces.”

Though social media will continue to evolve, marketers seeking some form of general direction can take comfort in the historically synergistic relationship between engagement and reach. According to recent data from social analytics company Socialbakers, the two metrics seem to naturally influence each other. More impressions tend to lead to more engagement from users, while more engaged customers tend to share content, which extends a brand’s reach. As with other avenues of modern marketing, the audience should determine where marketers’ priorities lie.