Marketers often get preoccupied by trying to track their direct return on investment for social spend. How much does each "like" cost? How much in sales will each "like" bring in?

Those are the wrong questions to ask.

Social spend for marketers has ROI that far exceeds the number of "likes" a brand acquires.

Based on my experience with major national brands, trying to use social as a direct response channel or only to drive one specific action leaves a lot of business intelligence value on the table.

To really add value to your social brand, you should be asking yourself the following questions.

1. What am I trying to accomplish as a social brand?

It's time to realize that the number of fans or followers on a page has nothing to do with the value of that brand's page.

If a user likes your page and never looks at it again, it's a lose/lose for both the user and your brand.

Even worse, some pages purchase "likes" from users outside their market that are no better than fabricated numbers. Those users aren't interested in engaging with the brand, so they add nothing to the page.

Re-swizzle your thinking: Rather than grow the number, work to drive true engagement.

 An engaged user is a valuable user—so figure out how to interact with him or her. For instance, if you're presenting content that users frequently comment on and share on their personal networks, you increase your page and brand reach. You also gain valuable perspective on what people think about your brand. Do they hate your new logo? Do they love your new television ad? If you have a vibrant brand presence that fosters conversation, those users will let you know.

By pursing the quality of followers over the number of fans, you continue to have visibility into interactions that can add business intelligence value to your social spend. You're also adding value to the users who engage with your content, making them more loyal to your brand.

2. How can I use what I learn from social engagement?

If you're just using Facebook as a place to publish some text you already wrote for a brochure or to repurpose your display ad campaign, you're missing out on what the platform offers marketers.

How often do you get to talk to your customers without spending money on call centers and bothering the customer at home (when they're probably not too excited to talk to you)?

Facebook and Twitter provide brands the largest set of public, observational data that has ever been available, and it's far less biased than survey data. Even better, you're already building it as part of your existing marketing strategy.

This is an opportunity to really learn about your customer and show them the human side of your brand.

Connect with customers in meaningful ways that matter outside of selling your product. You have subject-matter expertise to share that benefits your buyer, and social gives you a chance to share it.

If your brand puts in the effort to engage beyond building fans and followers, every time you post a new image or graphic, you have the opportunity to gauge interest, interact, and see what's important to your customers.

Yes, there are technologies to help marketers collect and analyze this kind of data, but you can do your own simple analysis by asking, "Which pieces inspired more comments? Which photos did users share to their own pages? Which had no activity at all?"

It's an instant way to know what's working—and what's not.

3. What does success look like for a social brand?

If the number of followers is a misguided metric for measuring social success, what's a better one?

Let's talk about affinity, that connection between brand and buyer that tells the strength of their connection beyond paid ad response.

Understanding the strength of connection between your fans and followers, and your brand (social brand affinity) teaches you so much about what your brand really is. The phrase "you are what they say you are" applies here. Brands that use social data to learn more about themselves are going to be far ahead of those are still battling for numbers.

* * *

I encourage marketers to take a more long-term view of social investment. Instead of getting so narrow on the numbers, look to build affinity so that users will interact with your brand without you having to pay for an ad or increased page reach.

Remember that not everything your brand presents has to be directly related to your product. (It probably shouldn't be.)

For example, if you sell cars around the concept of safety, seek out conversations surrounding car seat safety or safe-driving techniques. Provide resources to your community regarding seasonal road conditions or advancements to hands-free device technology. Though not directly related to buying a car, doing so shows your brand as an authentic resource interested in adding value to those who engage with it. That's how you build a real connection with your audience, which effectively builds data and intelligence for your business.

If you're still asking, "How can I get more likes than my competitor?" you're going about social all wrong.

By taking a step back, understanding how your social spend is related to creating connections, and recognizing the business intelligence value of social data, your brand is better poised for success than your competitor who just bought those "likes" because he couldn't see past the numbers.

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Three Questions You Have to Ask Yourself About Your Social Brand

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image of Lance Neuhauser

Lance Neuhauser is CEO of 4C, a Big Data analytics and social intelligence company offering advertising and measurement platforms.

Twitter: Lance Neuhauser