I have a lot of conversations with B2B marketers. And you know what? They’re all struggling with how to set goals for social media marketing.

I’m not saying they don’t know what they hope to achieve (hint: leads). It’s just that these smart marketers seem unsure of themselves when it comes to setting measurable goals for social media. No wonder there’s still confusion about Social ROI!

So what’s going on?

Questions to Answer Early On

When it comes to goal setting, too many B2B marketers stumble out the gate by not giving enough thought to these key questions:

What are your objectives for social media?

There are a number of objectives you can strive for. Maybe it’s building brand awareness, generating leads, deepening relationships with your customers or driving brand advocacy. The list goes on and on. The important thing is to have everyone on the same page regarding which objectives you’re shooting for … and the knowledge that you can’t do all of them at once!

How committed is your team to social media?

Hopefully I’m not the first to tell you that making social media work takes a ton of effort. So the goals you set should reflect the time and resources your organization has dedicated to moving the dial as it does with every other marketing initiative. For example, how many blog posts, status updates and tweets can you (and your team) really do on a monthly, weekly and daily basis?

On which social media platforms will you focus?

Everyone gets that blogging is important and so is being active on LinkedIn and Twitter. But does Facebook really work for B2B? Are YouTube and Instagram worth the trouble (not to mention all the other social media networks out there — Snapchat, anyone?)? The ones you invest in should depend on where your target audience is active, what your main objectives are, the amount of resources you commit, and what your competitors are doing.

How will you track and measure progress?

Do you know how to track and measure social media efforts independently from your other marketing programs? This is where Hootsuite, Google Analytics, Bit.ly and dedicated landing pages come in. What will your weekly, monthly, and quarterly reporting look like for social media? Figuring out the right goals will help ensure you’re reporting on the relevant metrics.

4 Stages of Social Media

Most B2B marketers don’t understand that when it comes to setting goals, there are four stages to social media. And the specific goals you set should be a function of which stage your company is in and what your social media objectives are. Nothing undermines social media progress more than getting this wrong.

Stage 1: Activity-Based Goals

Do you remember the last time you joined a gym? Your first goal was just to show up every week, right? Then you focused on losing weight, etc. The initial stage of social media is like that. The important goal at this stage is your activity: the number of blog posts per month, tweets per day, and status updates per week that you and your team can do.

Stage 2: Audience-Building Goals

At this stage, you’re getting pretty consistent with blogging and social sharing but have no meaningful audience yet. You know you’re at this stage because you start hearing: “Hey, we’re blogging but there’s no traffic and no one’s sharing our posts!” Now it’s time to focus on building high-quality social channels filled to the brim with prospects, customers, influencers and —yes — employees. So your social media goals need to be more about the number of email subscribers to the blog, and followers on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google Plus, etc.

Stage 3: Engagement Goals

Congratulations if you’ve made it to this stage! Since you have consistent social activity and a growing social audience you now get to reap some rewards. People are starting to regularly share your blog posts, retweet and mention your company’s social handles, and like and comment on your LinkedIn status updates. Now you should focus on increasing this engagement by setting goals for metrics such as: the social reach of your content, and retweets, mentions, likes, and comments. Also establish which and how many industry influencers you’re engaging.

Stage 4: ROI Goals

At this stage you can finally start measuring the ROI of your social media efforts. Why? Because your consistent (and increasing) social media activity and engaged audience are starting to drive meaningful website traffic, landing page clicks, and … yes, leads! It’s now easier to get more resources to help turn the social media wheel faster. Why? Because everyone sees the progress. Companies — both large and small — that are at this stage include: @Hubspot, @Marketo, @SDL, @Moz, @KISSmetrics and @Unbounce.

Keep in Mind

How long should you expect to be focused on a particular stage? It depends on the resources you commit and how quickly you can ramp up your social media activity. With that said, I’ve found that a good benchmark is one to two quarters for each stage. In addition, you’ll always be working on each stage but your goals will increasingly start to reflect the next stage you’re moving towards.

Be careful to align your specific goals to the social media stage you’re in — otherwise you may overturn your progress by trying to answer the ROI question too early.

Your turn!  Which stage is your company in for social media? What tips do you have for setting the right social media goals?

(Note: this article first appeared on CMSWire.com)