Social media marketing is a hot topic for most companies – but there’s plenty of confusion regarding its employment as a tactical enabler within an organization’s overall marketing strategy.

Companies need to ask some important questions and apply some rules of logic when jumping into social marketing. Many don’t have a plan beyond simply “having a presence,” while others wonder if the effort is worth it in terms of ROI? Data points abound regarding social media marketing – who uses it, who doesn’t. Some new data suggests social media use is actually dropping. What to do?…

Let’s start by dividing social media marketing into two categories: Engagement and advertising.

Engagement is just that – engaging with your audiences. Be they your competitors, investors, leads, active customers, media, etc., social media engagement offers you the opportunity to develop a relationship and have a conversation with them (and anyone else who cares to join in). Engagement is a resource-intensive activity. As the name implies, it requires one to be engaged – not just when you feel like it, but when others feel like it too. (Did you ever know someone who called you only when they wanted something – but they were always too busy to return your call when you wanted to talk to them? How long did that relationship last?) Like building a friendship, cultivating your social media audience requires nurturing, patience, honesty and respect.

Think of social media engagement as a soft sell. As you develop relationships with people, the hope is as they become familiar with your brand or product, you will receive some intrinsic benefit from that relationship – be it in the form of raised awareness, a sale or perhaps brand advocacy. But that received benefit is merely part of an ongoing process, not the endpoint – and depending on what you are looking to achieve can take years. And don’t forget there has to be a benefit in this relationship for your audience as well.

Many marketers default to Facebook since it is the most popular social network. But unless all 1.5 billion Facebook users represent your target market, it isn’t necessarily your best option.

Advertising is a subset of engagement in that while advertising does engage with your audiences, it is a one-way conversation. You are paying for an opportunity to place your messages in front of a prospect with whom you may or may not have an existing relationship. While there are different purposes for advertising, most are geared toward generating a sale. Given most social media ads are pay-per-click, you’re hoping to generate a enough sales through those clicks to offset the cost of buying the ad.

If engagement is an attempt to earn someone’s friendship, advertising is an attempt to buy it. And while we’re not big advocates of social media advertising – due to questionable metrics, the growing popularity of ad-blocking software and opt-outs – there is unquestionable utility for its use in support of specific marketing objectives.

But be aware: Choosing your social media advertising platform isn’t as easy as choosing a search advertising platform (Google, duh). Nowadays there are few functional discriminators among social media ad platforms. They all offer customizable demographic segments. They all offer video or image ads. They all have tiered pricing. The list goes on… The most important discriminator in selecting a platform is: Who are the primary users of that network and what is their purpose for being on that network? If your objective is to drive sales, you have to reach your prospects while they are in the consideration/evaluation phases of the customer journey.

Example #1: Given our resources, objectives and business goals Silicon Harbor Communications engages on only two social networks (Twitter and LinkedIn). The rationale is fairly simple: We’re B2B and those platforms have the highest efficacy rate for our market and support what we are trying to accomplish.

Example #2: Makers of consumer durable goods have been turning to social platforms to reach younger demographics. This cultivation strategy is a calculated investment, as it will be years before those groups become major purchasers of durable goods.

Bottom line: When considering social media marketing, you must examine your business objectives and how your communication strategy will support it. That examination will help you define how, why, and to what extent you use it.