The conversation goes like this:

Client: “We need to analyze our social media data.”

Me: “Cool. What’s the desired outcome?”

Client: “We need to get active with social media.”

Me: “Yes. But what’s the need, pain, or problem?”

Client: We need to analyze our social media data.”

Discussions like this happen in business all the time, and they’re not exclusive to the topic of social media. But show me a company that’s vague about the drivers for a new initiative and I’ll show you a company that doesn’t have a solid strategy in place. And that goes for social media, too.

As our clients engage with us more and more on social media analytics, we’re noticing that there’s a natural progression of maturity. We’re also doing more coaching around social media strategy to drive related data strategy and governance efforts. Apart from the usual platitudes of “getting closer to employees, partners, and customers via lower-cost channels” it turns out very few business leaders can answer my question about the desired outcome of social media analytics.

In our experience, there needs to be at least one prevalent driver for social media. I call these the “4 Es of Social Media Strategy.” They are:

There are already some great examples of companies that have zeroed in on one of these areas used it as a foundation for other drivers. For instance, J.C. Penney offers its Facebook fans—now over half a million strong—unique deals and discounts, clearly leveraging the social media channel to Engage a younger demographic of apparel customers. Earlier this year the retailer leaked its Oscar ads on Facebook before the show aired, mixing a little Entertain with a lot of Expose.

Indeed, many on-line retailers remind shoppers about shipping rates and return policies on their websites and through their blogs. But web strategist Jeremiah Owyang wrote this week about how Levi uses social media to Educate shoppers to “like” a product and to tell their friends about it.

Del Monte has leveraged the power of social networking with its “I Love My Dog” community, in which dog lovers can interact with the company and with each other. Del Monte gets 40 percent of its revenues through pet products (Snausages, anyone?). Who knew?

And that’s the point. Del Monte has gone from Expose as its primary driver—ensuring that pet owners ($2 billion a year strong) know about its various brands—and moved to Engage as its workaday model. The packaged goods company enlists its ready-made social community in surveys—using it to test marketing campaigns and get feedback on new product ideas—and occasionally moving over to Educate when it comes to product ingredients. In the meantime Del Monte is collecting information that can inform new campaigns and product ideas.

Over time your company’s social media strategy can incorporate each of the 4 Es, but there is usually a single prevailing need that will likely justify the initial effort, and provide the foundational platform and skill sets for subsequent social media activities. The key is to avoid making social media a “research project” or, as a Chief Marketing Officer pronounced it recently, “an intellectual exercise with no tangible benefits.” In a word, Ouch!

Jill also blogs at JillDyche.com.