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Social media has become an integral part of smart marketing strategies. Most top companies retain at least one social-media expert, and some have a slew of consultants focusing on social strategies.

Companies will increase their digital marketing budgets an average of 17% in 2010, with social media driving much of that increase, according to research by eConsultancy..

In fact, for many companies, social networks have become a larger source of referral traffic than search. But although most companies understand that they need to embrace social media to drive word-of-mouth traffic, their resources focus almost entirely on the social experience that takes place off their own website,- and on the associated metrics.

That means marketers are spending millions of dollars, often on paid-search campaigns, to bring visitors to their websites, but their social strategy helps send those visitors away.

For example, a visitor arrives at a top clothing retailer's website after clicking a specific search term, clicks a link to "Join our community on Facebook," and is redirected to Facebook.com. That's a potential customer who may never return.

Many businesses also maintain a Twitter account or seed videos into YouTube. Marketers typically have in-house teams, outside experts, and a host of agencies working on their off-site social marketing, monitoring, and community interaction, all of which are extremely important.

But the key questions businesses should ask are the following: What am I doing to optimize my own site to drive social participation and socially referred traffic? and How do I measure success?

On-Site: The Other Half of Social Marketing

What do Facebook, Twitter, and the other social platforms think about marketers' optimizing their own sites for social activity and traffic? It may come as a surprise that they see such site engagement as the wave of the future and provide technologies to enable it.

The new generation of social-connectivity technologies allows you to deeply integrate your site with the social-network platforms, which means everything from registering users with an extant social identity, to making it easy for them to share content with social-network friends, to building site experiences that incorporate friends.

Such technologies—from Facebook Connect, to Sign in with Twitter, to Y!OS and MySpace—offer unique access to the social-network platforms that any website can tap into.

The Huffington Post, for example, uses those technologies to enable visitors to register using their Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn, or other identity. HuffPo can access user profile data to prepopulate registration form fields to streamline the process. HuffPo also has access to the user's profile photo and demographic data, which it can use to customize the site experience.

Once connected, HuffPo members can see not only what content was most popular among the entire Huffington Post community but also which stories were most popular among their own network of Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, or other friends. Then with a single click and without ever leaving the HuffPo site, users can share content with their social networks, driving friends to the HuffPo site.

Seven Key Metrics

With those new technologies come new key performance metrics that fall into three areas: registration, sharing, and traffic.

Registration. Enabling users to register or sign in using a social identity not only streamlines the process but also lays the foundation for a deeper relationship with your customers.

User preferences and social-network terms of service notwithstanding, when users sign in with a social identity, they give your site access to demographic and even interest data that can help you customize and personalize the user experience.

You also get access to an email address that has already been verified by the social network, eliminating the need for an email confirmation process.

1. Registration performance

Begin by identifying improvements in registration rate, registration starts, and registration completion rates as a result of offering third-party registration options.

2. Distribution of connections (registrations) by social network

Understanding which networks your users prefer can help you improve the registration process (e.g., ensuring that as much data is pre-populated in form fields as each platform makes available, such as email address or city and state).

Sharing. Users on Facebook and Twitter have an average of about 120 friends, so it's no surprise that sharing can help promote any online business. Once you understand what content or activity drives the most shares, you can begin to optimize for that behavior.

3. Shares per day

Look at the number of shares per day from your site into the social networks. You might also look at average number of shares per user. Monitor the growth of sharing as it increases because of your on-site optimization efforts.

4. Distribution of sharing by social network

Break down the sharing from users on your site by each social network. What percentage of sharing is going to Facebook? To LinkedIn? Discovering the most-popular networks among your users will help you optimize how content is sent, and then displayed, on each platform to ensure optimal exposure.

5. Average number of return clicks from each item shared

How many clicks to your site are generated from each piece of content shared? Knowing that helps you determine the value of the return traffic you are getting. You can then optimize to increase traffic from the most-valuable social networks.

Traffic. Marketers should begin by documenting their starting point: the percentage of traffic that is currently coming from social networks. That will enable you to measure increases in social-network traffic that are the result of your on-site social-optimization efforts.

6. The percentage of referrals against total traffic

Traffic from social networks should be at least 15% of total traffic to your site. If you find your social-network traffic is not that high, incorporate next-generation sharing technologies on your own site as a cost-effective way to increase that traffic source.

7. The mix of on-site social-network traffic

Once you know how much traffic is being referred to your site from your on-site efforts, look at the mix of that traffic: How much is coming from Facebook? How much from Twitter? That will help you prioritize your efforts.

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To compete in the next generation of the Web, online businesses will need to drive the evolution of their websites to take advantage of social developments, technical and cultural.

No matter what your industry, driving socially referred traffic is taking its place alongside search-engine optimization and paid-search marketing as a critical area of marketing analysis and investment for any business operating on the Web today. Is your site ready?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Liza Hausman is vice-president of marketing at Gigya (www.gigya.com), a provider of an SaaS-based social optimization platform for online business, connecting websites to social networks.