Social media can be very exciting. For companies who are brave enough to embrace social media and integrate engagement within their communication and marketing strategies, the most daunting part is measuring its impact on the bottom line. And lest you think that you need to be a seasoned marketing professional to really know how to measure social media engagement, think again – it’s something everyone struggles with.

X Marks the Spot

Return on investment (ROI) is a term that’s often used to establish the value of spending time, money and energy on something. For many, ROI is expected to result in actual dollars. What makes social media unique (and overwhelming) is that there has yet to be a definitive equation that says X number of followers or posts or interactions results in Y number of dollars raised or products sold.

So how do you develop an effective social media marketing strategy so that you get the most bang for your buck? And how do you even know what to measure?

The most frequent question social media strategists are asked is “How do I know if it’s [social media] is working?” The usual reply is that definitive goals need to be outlined and established. After all, in order to measure X, you have to know what X is to begin with. It’s very easy to get bogged down thinking that everything you do on social media needs to result in a specific action, but the beauty of social media is that it’s a journey, not a destination.

Develop Realistic Goals

A few considerations to keep in mind when developing your goals include:

Not every Business on Social Media has an Immediate Product to Sell

Sometimes your widget isn’t a product, but an experience. Social media can provide excellent opportunities for organizations, for profit and non-profit, to promote themselves. If you’re a restaurant, you will want to create an online environment where current patrons feel comfortable sharing their feedback (positive and negative) and prospective customers can get a feel for what you have to offer.

It’s all about Creating an Incentive

Before you decide what’s in it for you, you must decide what’s in it for your customers. Like any well developed product or service, your social media presence should solve a viable problem or add value to an experience. Whether it’s providing coupon codes, discounts or an opportunity to by pass traditional customer service channels, users should get something out of their engagement, otherwise what’s the point?

Capitalize on your Strengths

You can’t be everything to everyone. If you spread yourself too thin, you’ll risk losing or creating valuable relationships. If this was a discussion about your traditional marketing approach, strategists would recommend streamlining your business so you’re only doing what you’re good at.

So why not adopt that mindset for social media. If you’re known for customer service, carry it over to Facebook or Twitter, where you can continue to monitor and respond to concerns or questions. If you’re known for being personable, then let your authentic personality shine through online. If you’re not known for anything in particular -- define yourself. If you’re best known for not providing enough customer service or being impersonal, use social media as an opportunity to prove them wrong.

You may have noticed that none of these talk about how many followers you need or the perfect amount of engagement. The truth is, if you develop goals that work for you, you will most likely see that you’ve built a community of users, who are actively engaged with you and your brand.

Resources for Social Media Monitoring, Measurement

For many companies, however, these type of goals are a little too hippy dippy. They need to know exactly what impact their social media presence is having on sales or inquiries. Again, while there is no one formula, there are a number of tools you can employ so that you can monitor trends in commenting, clicks and overall interest. For a detail list of tools, we recommend revisiting the following resources:

Most tools help to develop benchmarks so you can track your progress. When you’re starting out, your fan following may grow quickly and then plateau. Benchmarks help to monitor growth so that you can begin to grow your fan base strategically (if that’s your goal) or develop other types of engagement strategies to leverage the power of your current users.

Regardless of how you define your goals or the tools you use, make them known -- to everyone. The more people know about what you aim to achieve the better equipped they will be to assist. Outline goals in a memo, tape them above your work station, incorporate them into your official marketing strategy. Even if you think these goals can change over time the more comfortable you and your users become, sharing your desired outcomes will not only make it easier to achieve, but will give them more validity.

Next week: Brand Management

Editor's note: Check Marisa's entire series devoted to Social media Marketing.