How to Calculate Social Media Engagement: A Math Activity

The career options for the social media savvy are vast. Students today might strive to be social media marketers, content coordinators, or brand ambassadors, if they’re not already influencers! The list of social media-oriented jobs grows each year as technology changes and new platforms emerge.

This activity, designed for middle school math students, challenges them to calculate percent engagement on a popular social media platform to make a case—mathematically—for who is the bigger social influencer.

By the numbers, social platforms are larger and more influential than ever. Facebook has quadrupled from an impressive 608 million active users per month in 2010 to a staggering 2.5 billion active users today. While Facebook is sometimes credited with starting a social media revolution, students today are likely more attuned to the photo-sharing influencer platform that Facebook owns: Instagram.

If you’ve somehow resisted the temptation that has captured over one billion users since 2013, here’s the simplified pitch: Instagram users share photos, videos, and ephemeral “stories” on a personal profile page. Other users can find this content by following the user, seeing content in an algorithmically generated feed, or searching user-written keywords preceded by the # symbol, known as a hashtag. If a user tags a photo with the hashtag #instagood, for example, it will appear in the #instagood feed with millions of similarly tagged posts. 

Marketers, influencers, and businesses that are building their brands online use hashtags to generate product exposure to those who are already seeking them out. Selling sportswear? Use #runner, #athlete, #yoga, or #fitness and post away! Social media coordinators and marketers expertly navigate a system where a single symbol (#) and word can make or break business engagement.

#Math: The Numbers Behind the Influence

The big takeaway for math class? Social media marketers, gurus, and influencers (who might very well include your students) pay attention to quantitative metrics that describe how their posts are doing. The number of likes, comments, followers, and views students get on social platforms is important to them. For better or worse, millions of teens are defining themselves by social media metrics more than ever before. And sometimes, it’s hard to know who’s actually doing well.

Instagram offers statistics to business account users that allow them to track engagement. Of the people seeing each post, what are they doing with it? Understanding engagement can help businesses better understand their consumers or audience.

Let’s look at a sample post, where the top icons refer to likes (heart), comments (chat bubble), shares (arrow), and saves (bookmark), and reach refers to the number of times the content was displayed and available for someone to view on Instagram:

When comparing these post insights to the post’s reach, the percentages might seem very low:

  • 8.6% of the audience who saw the post liked the post (453/5,251).
  • 0.5% of the audience who saw the post clicked on our profile (26/5,251).
  • 1.5% of the audience who saw the post shared or saved the post (43/5,251 + 34/5,251).

Getting likes, views, and saves is more work than many people realize!

Another commonly used statistic compares likes to followers. This sample post received 453 likes on an account that has 3,051 followers (not shown). Convert the fraction 453/3,051 into a percentage to see that the post reached a 14.8% engagement rate. Not bad! 

Instagram and other social media companies strategically offer numerical summaries like the ones above, where the numbers alone don’t mean much until you compare them in the right way. An Instagram user may look at a reach of 5,000, for example, and erroneously interpret that as strong engagement because 5,000 seems like a large audience. The numbers tell a different story, however, when we see how many people actually engaged with the post. Applying ratio, proportion, and percent to measure engagement and growth on social media is a real strategy that social gurus use—and one that math teachers can practice! 

Try this activity, for students in Grades 7–9, to give students practice calculating ratios and percentages to identify the mock Instagram profile with the most engagement. Once students have completed the activity, here are some possible discussion questions for them to discuss or write about:

  • Which account has the most followers? Does that account have the most engagement? Why or why not?
  • Which account has the most average likes? Does that account have the most engagement? Why or why not?
  • Imagine you are given $1,000 to support one of the influencers or brands on your worksheet. You know that high level of engagement often means a higher profit for the product or influencer. Whom do you support? Explain your choice.
 

You can ground this activity firmly in the real world. Have students select a real brand, person, or product on Instagram, and ask them to complete a similar engagement analysis. Tell them not to choose someone they know personally. There’s space for the analysis at the bottom of the activity sheet.

You can also tie social responsibility into the conversation. Ask students what they think about supporting community organizations, nonprofits, and eco-friendly brands on social media. Start a conversation about how to post responsibly and what that means. By using a little math, they can track their own progress and turn a hobby, interest, or knowledge base into a successful social endeavor!

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MATH 180 is a program devoted to showing the math behind all sorts of careers, including those in the social media world. MATH 180 subscribers can check out the Social Climbers anchor video in Block 1.