"When people bring someone in to do social media," Shannon Paul told me in the most recent episode of Marketing Smarts, "they envision having someone on the front lines who everyone else is going to tell what to say and write. You end up repurposing a lot of stuff that is inherently 'not conversational'—brochures, press releases—a lot of stuff that was never intended to have a feedback mechanism.

Listen to it later:

"That person ends up turning around and saying, 'No.'"

Reminiscent of Steve Job's famous dictum that "Focusing is about saying no," one can say that social media strategy, if not born, is at least best expressed in this "no." You say "no" because you have a clear sense of what does and doesn't belong in the social media channels you're using. And you have that clear sense because you have developed and articulated a social media strategy.

Of course, as Shannon is quick to point out, the conversation doesn't and shouldn't end there! Instead, because you have a strategy and you want to help, you turn around and say, "I could just tweet this announcement, but it would be better if we thought about how we could generate conversation around things related to this product."

And so engagement grows.

Shannon compares the process of applying social media strategy in this way to the use she makes of the editorial policy at the blog she manages, A Healthier Michigan. The stated mission of that blog, which is sponsored by Shannon's employer, is to "help everyone in Michigan get healthier from the inside out." Accordingly, the content combines a focus on healthy living with a focus on life in Michigan. This mission serves as a yardstick when deciding what and what not to publish, particularly when others are pitching them.

So what is a "social media strategy" exactly?

To Shannon, it's two things. On the one hand, it answers the question, "What is my brand's role in this place with these people?" It expresses the "how" of social media for your organization: How are we going to approach social channels? How will the brand live and breathe there? In what spirit? With what tone?

On the other hand, and as a practical manner, social media strategy addresses the question of organizational alignment. Specifically, your social media strategy describes how social media will be used to support the strategy of your department (communications, PR, what have you), and, more broadly, the overall strategy of the organization.

Once the strategy is laid out, it becomes possible to integrate social media into the plans of an organization at the outset—as she puts it: "when products are designed, when communication strategies are put together"—rather than as an afterthought.