By Rick Curtis, Head of Strategy at Amaze

So you work in PR or Marketing (or, glory be, the Social Media Dept!) and have been given responsibility for your company’s nascent social media strategy. Sounds great — an opportunity to make a difference and play with the newest toy in the box. But there’s a catch... the senior management team has decided that they have had enough social ‘experimentation’ over the last few years and are demanding that social media proves its value. They want results — and they don’t mean an improved brand sentiment score - they mean leads, sales and profits.

This is the dilemma facing many corporate social media strategists in 2011. In a recent Altimeter Group study entitled ‘Career Path of the Corporate Social Strategist’, 74% reported that their primary duty was to measure and report on return on investment (ROI), with almost half citing the creation of ROI measurements as their top internal objective for the forthcoming year. But developing a commonly agreed set of key performance indicators (KPIs) for social media is notoriously difficult. Social practitioners favour soft metrics, such as reputation, engagement and participation, whilst senior management prefer metrics that are very much at the hard end of the scale.

In response, many social strategists (and their agencies) have desperately tried to append a hard ‘value’ to social activity that goes beyond pure leads or sales (as these figures are often so low down you have to dig for them) — using average CPM calculations to derive a comparative media value, or by talking about ‘potential reach’ — the numbers who may have seen a piece of social content such as friends of those who ‘like’ a brand on Facebook. The problem is that senior marketers, on the whole, aren’t buying it. They will profess interest in reach, reputation et al but in these straitened times they want to see cold, hard cash.

And it gets harder as budgets remain tight and you have to “prove this stuff works” before being given access to the big bucks. BUT - as E-consultancy’s ‘Social Media and PR’ report produced last year clearly showed - it is those companies who invest most in social media that are reaping the rewards. 52% of companies who considered themselves heavily involved in social media believed that they had gained ‘real and tangible’ rewards from the channel, as opposed to just 13% of those who had merely experimented with social media. The message here is pretty clear - dipping your toe into the world of social is fine, but as with most things, small effort equals small reward. If you want to win big, you need to think and play big.

The toe-dippers are faced with the classic chicken and egg dilemma — only small budgets are allocated until social proves itself, but without proper investment rewards are likely to remain small. The challenge for the now beleaguered social media strategist (and agencies operating in this space), is as simple as it is stark — how to break the cycle and turn social media into more than a marginal influence within the organisation?

If this sounds like you, or your organisation, then a few tips below might help get you started on the road to social redemption.

1. Educate Our Masters

Social media is no longer new, but it is still misunderstood and mistrusted by many senior managers. They believe in it enough to spend a few quid on buzz monitoring software and don’t mind outtakes from ad shoots and television commercials appearing on the brand’s Facebook page and YouTube channels. But change the company infrastructure? Invest in the creation of original social content? No thanks.

The challenge here is developing an understanding within the senior team, that social media is about more than immediate financial ROI — it’s about building your reputation, and engaging with and getting to know consumers on a much deeper level. Social is as much about the long conversation as it is next quarter’s sales figures — a difficult message in today’s environment, but an important one.

So, as Disraeli once put it (in a quite different context!), ‘we must now educate our masters’.

Engage with senior stakeholders, share success stories, drive demand from the bottom by liaising with other departments — and, most importantly, put in place a formalised internal education programme that lays the platform for a strategic and realistic approach to social within the organisation.

2. Build a Business Case and Set Expectations

Building a business case for social media seems obvious, but anecdotally when I speak to senior decision makers at large organisations, they often haven’t seen one, or if they have it was a one pager on how the PR dept aimed to reach one million Facebook Fans or ‘Likes’ (or whatever we are meant to call them nowadays).

The number of ‘likes’ or re-tweets you get is fine — but it won’t solve the ‘show me the money’ issue. Set targets that are clearly aligned to your objectives and measure them through to a defined outcome — whether that is website conversions, reduced customer service costs or changes in brand perception.

3. Look to Ride the Social Commerce Wave

2011 is the year when social commerce will hit big - and with it comes the opportunity to demonstrate return on investment in such a way that even the organisation’s social sceptics will sit up and take notice. Think about how to use social commerce to better sell your products and services (http://socialcommercetoday.com is a good place to start) and look to run trials that measure the impact of social interaction on your bottom line.

Good Luck!