More than once in recent weeks I’ve participated in (or overheard out of the corner-of-an-ear) discussions on how time-consuming social media has become, what the payoff might be, and when it might be realized. (Don’t act like you haven’t asked some version of the same questions.) Not only is the issue real; it is legitimate. It isn’t as though any of us has either a shortage of work, or an overabundance of free time on our hands.

Why are we here? What keeps pulling us back? When will the investment pay off? And will we recognize the payoff when it occurs?

If the numbers game doesn’t meet your needs – i.e. the accumulation of followers, friends and fans — the issue becomes pointed. Get beyond the metrics that are relatively easy to skew in a positive direction, and what is the measure for success? And even when it comes to the numbers aspect of direct marketing, when might it be the best investment to simply buy connections.

So…what about all the time a comprehensive social media strategy requires — Is it worth it?

Measuring Intangibles

There have been volumes written on the “ROI of social media.” Virtually all discuss the idea that social is an investment in relationships. And relationships are tough to measure. They are dynamic. Some days they are stronger than others. The best weather storms and grow deep over time. And client loyalty initiatives notwithstanding, relationship is an intangible asset.

To apply a standard designed to quantify tangibles when attempting to measure intangibles is to ignore the fact that the two live and operate in opposite sides of the brain. (This is really a topic unto itself, but if you wrestle with this idea, check Chip Conley’s thoughts on measuring what matters, here.)

If we are to accurately measure the value of social media we must rethink the measurement process. Not retool; simply rethink. Align perspective.

In a presentation titled The Power of Vulnerability (click to view), social researcher and storyteller Brene Brown begins with this premise: in the social arena, connection is what matters most. The ability to feel connected is of ultimate importance to human beings.

Now…if you skimmed that last paragraph, take a second to re-read.

For everyone wondering about the social media explosion, or what the return on the time invested might be, the answer lies in the way we think about connecting. As Brown suggests, human beings are prewired to connect, to belong, and to share. Social media is simply an extremely efficient way to make connection possible.

With this in mind, here are four cornerstones of a productive way to connect:

1. Be about building. There are plenty for whom social media is just another numbers game. Gather (and solicit) enough names, create a pitch, and sell widgets. But if you’re here to connect, be about building something to which others are drawn – a discussion, a group, a community.

2. Give unconditionally. Agendas and expectations kill relationships. If you want folks to connect with what you’re building, figure out how to give something of value. This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t ever ask for something or make a “pitch”; it is to say that if the first thing you do with every connection is fire off a Direct Message selling your software, you may not be building lasting relationships.

3. Be personal, real, and appropriately transparent. Brene Brown talks about the critical nature of vulnerability. We won’t presume that social media marketing is the venue for total transparency; but if you hope to build enduring relationships, social calls for language, tone and thesis that resonate. Absent a quality that is unmistakably real, your connections will be nominal. And of little long-term value.

4. Target smart. One of the greatest challenges associated with establishing rewarding connections in social media is defining with whom you wish to connect. There is, unfortunately, no single easy answer for this; however, begin by being selective around subject matter, individuals / groups you admire, and issues around which you have affinity. Social is an enormous pool. Be focused, and you’ll realize valuable connections sooner rather than later.

Ultimately value must be reflected on the bottom-line. But if connections and relationships are valued assets, short-term numbers rarely tell the whole story. Never underestimate the value of intangibles. Measure What Matters.