Let’s face it: Just because you know how to post pictures of your cat on Facebook and retweet Charlie Sheen quotes on Twitter doesn’t mean you know social strategy. Most companies understand that they need to incorporate social media as part of a healthy marketing program. Some companies - like Zappos, Ford and Victoria’s Secret - are even doing it well. But many other companies take a reactive approach; they sign up on a social network and try to roll with the punches.

Bottom line: Without a bulletproof strategy, businesses will probably fail to realize a true return on investment (ROI) and may even get into deep trouble with customers. According to McKinsey Quarterly, companies that pursue social media strategically can "create critical new brand assets (such as content from customers or insights from their feedback), open up new channels for interactions (Twitter-based customer service, Facebook news feeds) and completely reposition a brand through the way its employees interact with customers or other parties."

Pretty cool, huh? If you want to do corporate social media - and do it right - here are some steps to help get you started.

Develop a Strategy

Thoughtful questions are the cornerstone of any strategy. Therefore, companies must clearly define objectives and expected outcomes before diving head-first into social media. Unfortunately, this is far from what most companies actually do. According to a January 2012 report from the Altimeter group, only 43 percent of companies that are active on social media said they had a formalized strategy or road map to address how social will meet specific business goals.

So how can you come up with that road map? Here are a few important questions that will help you get started.

Who are you trying to reach?
You can't just start tweeting and Facebooking and expect someone to listen. After all, the most important aspect of any kind of advertising is knowing who you're speaking to. Who is our audience? If there are multiple audience groups, how do you prioritize them? What does the audience think is important? Armed with this knowledge, organizations can shape content to attract followers. (Get some insight on how to do this in Streamline the Conversation: How and Why Twitter Hashtags Work.)

What do you want the audience to know?
The best social media campaigns are purposeful. What do you want our audience to know about the company? What are your key messages? What do you want our audience to think about our brand? The answers to these questions will determine what you actually say over social media.

Who will do the work?
Doing social media well can be a lot of work. This means that part of setting up a social media strategy involves determining who will do the heavy lifting. Who will own and operate your company's social channels? How many employees will have access to official social media accounts? Do you need a social media policy?

Not sure if you need a social media policy for employees and contractors? Think again: Mistakes are easy to make. For example, online retailer Celeb Boutique uses a foreign PR firm to manage its Twitter account. On the day after 12 people were killed in a shooting that occurred in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the PR firm noticed that the hashtag #Aurora was trending on Twitter. Unaware of the shootings, the firm posted the following Tweet: "#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress ;-)"

Naturally, the company received major backlash from the Internet community. To avoid this situation, Celeb Boutique could have established a social media policy mandating that users research trending hashtags before mentioning them in Tweets.

What is your content strategy?
Those who are new to social media marketing often assume they should be spending their time pushing their own product or service. In the social media world, however, it's actually counterproductive to push overly promotional content 100 percent of the time. That's because unlike other mediums like TV, radio or print, social media is a two-way form of communication. That means rather than blast people with advertisements, companies also need to listen and engage. For most companies, that means balancing out content between the following areas:

  • Purely promotional
  • Information that their audience cares about from other sources on the web
  • Interactions/engagement with followers

How will you go after the most relevant followers? How many followers do you want to pursue?
Knowing where your audience is and figuring out how to connect with them is key. Rather than focusing on having the most followers possible, focus on getting a group of followers that's highly relevant and highly engaged.

What will you define success?
Don't just pursue a social media strategy for the heck of it - do it to achieve something specific, such as brand promotion, thought leadership, Web traffic, lead generation or customer service. (Read about someone who used social media to meet a very specific goal in How I Used Twitter to Land a Tech Job.)

How will you measure your efforts?
Determine what a successful social media strategy will mean for you. It could be more traffic to your website, greater customer retention or more brand awareness. Whatever it is, you'll also have to find a way to measure it to determine whether your social media strategy is working.

How can social media be used to support other marketing activities?
Social media is just one part of a bigger overall marketing strategy. As such, it should fit with the company's key marketing goals.

Put the Plan Into Action

Once the strategy is informed, it’s time to roll up your sleeves. The first step involves creating a content plan and calendar. Planning in advance helps ensure that companies are pushing out the right mix of content at the right frequency. Social media managers can even schedule content in advance using tools like HootSuite or TweetDeck. It’s also important to make sure that an employee is constantly monitoring social media accounts to engage with followers, answer questions and respond to customer service inquiries.

Avoid Common Pitfalls

One very common mistake that many companies make in social media is not getting qualified followers. The first step to attracting followers is to create great content. Social media managers should follow new relevant users regularly, promote and comment on relevant posts, and engage as much as possible. There should be a steady stream of content, but not too much; posting too frequently can drive your audience away.

Finally, once organizations get the hang of social media marketing they may start to automate their processes. That said, companies should be careful with social media automation. Scheduling posts in advance is a best practice; automated, robo-posts should be avoided.

Measure Success

It is critical for brands to monitor their success. Fortunately, according to Forrester analyst Auggie Ray, "marketers don’t need to reinvent brand metrics for the social media age." Success should be measured simply - through awareness and purchase intent - and should not necessarily be tied to sales increases. Direct sales ROI, for example, is difficult to measure, while Web visibility is an easier metric to track.

It’s also a best practice to set up a social media listening dashboard to figure out what customers are saying about the brand (and competitive brands) on social media networks. (Read about how Twitter can be used for customer service in For Customer Service, Please Click "Tweet.")

Now Go Out and Get Social!

Social media has become a key piece of the marketing puzzle for all sorts of companies. If you haven't adopted a social media strategy, it may be time to get a move on. But you'd better have a plan. For businesses, there's a lot more to the game than cat pictures and celebrity quotes. (To learn more social media management best practices, check out Jedi Strategies for Social Media Management.)