This blog post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review site.

Want to know your social media score? Fill in the following equation:

(Twitter followers + Facebook friends + LinkedIn contacts)
(Total tweets + Twitterers you follow + Months on Facebook)
Wait! Stop! It was a trick. If that equation sent you scrambling to look at your Twitter stats or Google analytics, it’s time to take a big step back. You’ve fallen prey to the greatest peril of social media: analytophilia.

I’ve got a terrible case of analytophilia myself. I can’t think when I last went a day without gloating over a flood of Twitter retweets, despairing over my blog traffic, or comparing my total number of LinkedIn connections to that of a colleague or competitor. I spend hours poring over Google analytics–hours I could have spent blogging or with my kids–in search of the number that will reveal the True Answer to how I should market my services, focus my writing, or expand my network.

And here’s the answer I found: the more I obsess over my analytics, the less satisfied I am with my experience and relationships online.

But analytics aren’t like alcohol: you can’t treat your addiction by abstaining. Analytics are a useful and necessary part of working with social media, as long as you engage with them strategically rather than emotionally. Here’s how:

  1. Start with an answerable question. Commit to reviewing your analytics only when you have a specific question you want answered. Numbers are meaningless unless you know what you want them to tell you. A good question is: “Do we get more sales by marketing our engineering expertise or our product discounts?” Look at the number of “contact us” click-throughs that come from expert blog posts versus twittered discount offers. But if you start with a bad question, like “What interests our customers?” those same numbers will tell you nothing.
  2. Test a hypothesis. If you’re using analytics to guide your business strategy, you need a testable hypothesis: a provable answer to the question you’ve posed. “Offering a $50 prize yields more retweets than offering a $25 prize” is a testable hypothesis. Just run a handful of contests and observe the impact. (Statisticians, feel free to weigh in on the number of contests required to achieve statistically valid results.) “Updating our Facebook page daily increases traffic to our web site” is another testable hypothesis; “It’s good for our business to have a Facebook page” is not.
  3. Focus on what’s actionable. One of the crazy-making features of analytics is that they make it easy to discover about eighteen million things you could do that would be smart, effective, and drive both traffic and sales. But if your business is like mine, you only have the bandwidth to do about three of those things in any given week. Identify the resources (dollars or people hours) you have available to invest in expanding or changing what you do online, and use analytics to guide the allocation of those resources. This works best when you have a few defined alternatives that you can assess with by reviewing your analytics with a question and hypothesis in mind.
  4. Stop making comparisons. The existence of Tweeting Too Hard tells me I’m not the only person who is annoyed by relentless self-promotion online. But what gets to me isn’t the behavior in itself but my reaction to it. When I read that a colleague has just scored a big new contract, or a competitor has just delivered a high-profile keynote, it can make me insecure. Analytics give me dozens of efficient and pervasive ways to get caught in this trap. It makes it easy to obsess about others rather than focus on what I want to do myself. Comparative benchmarking has its place. It will help set initial or quarterly targets (for example, by providing an indicator of the number of Twitter followers or frequency of blog comments that similar-size companies are able to achieve). But once you know what you’re aiming for, focus on achieving your goal rather than getting consumed with constant comparisons.
  5. Accentuate the positive. Women who obsess over inches and pounds are advised to follow each self-criticism with a positive reflection on a body part they feel good about. Analytophiliacs need to do the same thing with their social media numbers. When you catch yourself stewing about your latest unfollows, take note of the five people who just retweeted you. When you’re frustrated by your stagnant site traffic, stop to celebrate the blog post that still gets a steady stream of comments.
  6. Know when to take a break. Obsession with analytics can feel like a trip back to high school. As a childhood outcast myself, I can attest to the special satisfaction I get when the girl who once stole my boyfriend wants to friend me on Facebook. But there is no quantity of buddies, followers or connections that will heal the pain of your date-less prom night. If you have an emotional reaction to your online analytics, it’s a sign that you need to stop looking at numbers and take the time to recharge with a professional or personal activity that reinforces your sense of self-worth.

It used to be that one was the loneliest number. Today the loneliest number might as well be one thousand (your followers on Twitter, if the guy in the next office has more than two thousand) or even one million (your blog’s monthly page views, if your competitor has three million).

But the social web is the last place you need to feel lonely. There is a world of colleagues, customers, and friends (not “friends”) waiting for you to reach out and connect. You can’t have a conversation with your Google Analytics dashboard, but you can have a great online conversation about the perils of obsessing over analytics. Let’s start that conversation here.

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