Recurrent themes popped up time and again at the Social Media Analytics Summit here in San Francisco, forming a picture of a nice, neat path towards success.

While absorbing a diverse set of presentations and informative case studies into the industry at the Social Media Analytics Summit, I believe I've found more insight into a general approach to social media than a useful understanding of analytics.

What follows are the tips of analysts and experts as funneled through my own perception.

1. Know Your Goals

This popped up time and again. Everyone seems to agree: when entering the social media realm, you must do so with clearly defined expectations. You must know exactly what it is you are looking to get out of your investment. Is it more fans? More likes? Content sharing? These are the metrics that can be measured and reported, so you'll know whether you are failing or succeeding with your strategy. Way down the line, you'll want to know how it's affecting sales and revenue. But if you approach it with that endgame as a priority, you're shooting yourself in the foot.

2. Listen, Analyze, and Start a Conversation

It is essential to be an active, alert listener. With or without an established presence, you can still put a periscope up there and see what's happening on land. Hear what people are saying about you in every way possible. That means more than reading Facebook posts; it means monitoring the actions of your consumers and understanding the cause and influence of those actions. You're well advised to keep an open mind, because what you hear could surprise you.

Once you're hearing what people are saying, you need to make concerted efforts to figure out what it all means. I suppose this is the most directly analytic part -- which can include any level of dissection. My previous articles dig a little deeper into how people are doing this, so let's assume you've already read those. For the next step, you can begin to engage your consumer in a way that is productive and fruitful for both parties. You can use your knowledge and understanding to initiate valuable interactions, and learn even more.

3. Start Small

The big picture isn't in focus yet. Industry leaders are still trying to find ways to effectively aggregate all of the data that floods in from the social ocean. Huge, smart leaps have been made but it looks a lot like a study in its infancy. 

Measuring social media means a targeted approach with clear goals. Facebook offers a great opportunity to ask free sample questions and gather data (a helpful tip supplied by Tami Dailey in a presentation she gave). Twitter offers clear opportunities to capitalize on trends. And on and on; opportunities are present everywhere regardless of the extent of your capability to build measured sets of data. 

On scales of structured data, simple programs have proven enormously and exponentially effective. In terms of unstructured data, text analytics, sentiment analysis and the like, you might find yourself trapped in the Platonic cave, attempting to determine the meaning of something that we don't yet understand.