I’m quite sure that my voice does not need to be added to the already lively debate on the different ways that the measurement of online media should be conducted in a way that provides the most insight to companies, organisations and governments. Without doubt, the person that devises a way to accurately measure the impact of online media in relation to a brand, campaign, policy would be an incredibly influential person.

However, such thinking leads us to seek that mythical magic-bullet in online analysis – the idea that one particular technique, methodology or set of metrics will provide us with unequivocal evidence of the effectiveness (or not thereof) of online engagement.

At present, the most useful way of assessing the efficacy of online engagement is analyse Internet communities in relation to an individual organisation’s Key Performance Inicators (KPI) or barometers of success. If we consider the KPIs for Human Rights Watch’s  online campaign against the use of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which is essentially an awareness-building campaign,  and that for Live 8 which largely sought to attract donations from the public, we can see that a number of different methodologies are needed to gauge the success of the online campaigns in question.

However, one paper I came across recently which provided an extremely interesting addendum to the measurement of online media debate was this one by HP Labs. The fact that it analysed the presence of social networks on Twitter is not groundbreaking, but its conclusion of the emergence of different kinds of social networks, particularly social networks that matter was something that struck me as particularly important.

It claimed that the number of “friends” a given user has is often misleading as an indicator of the importance of that particular network. This is because people who lead busy lives tend to interact with people who reciprocate their attention – therefore a more accurate measure of the importance of a social network is the activity within that network and not the amount of users.

This is really important as it suggests that while the activity in a network is limited to a few influential users, the posts themselves are watched and consumed by any number of users. Therefore a second, more dense, and hidden network emerges as a result of the conversation between a set of users. This phenomenon becomes important if we measure the reach of a message or brand or policy and the extent to which it influences those who consume the message.

While there is no magic-bullet in accurately assessing the impact of online media, the emergence and mapping of hidden networks is a really useful way of measuring the return on investment (ROI) for an organisation and in these times when communications budgets are being squeezed, is a cheap and effective way to justify the efficacy of a campaign or online engagement strategy.