These days, the conversation is shifting from if clubs should integrate social media into their marketing strategies to how to use these tools most effectively to increase exposure, sales and customer engagement. According to research by eMarketer, 35 percent of small businesses use social networking sites, and four out of five large companies (those with 100 or more employees) plan to use social media in their marketing mix this year.

Whether you are just getting started with social media or have been at it for a while, outlining and sticking to an overall strategy will yield better results than a spray and pray approach.

Consider these 10 basic points when setting your social media goals:

Look before you leap. Once you’ve made the decision to incorporate social media into your marketing plan, explore the practices of successful companies inside and outside of your industry. What platforms do they use? How do they create a presence? What services do they offer online? Who is their audience? What topics are important to their customers and fans? Observing companies’ activities and interactions on their blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds and Foursquare profiles can give you a window into how they integrate social media into their marketing activities.

Begin with the end in mind. What specifically do you want to achieve through social media, and how will you track your success? Your primary objectives may be to promote your brand message, provide customer service, gather feedback, build goodwill or generate new leads. Once you have identified your highest priorities, you will have a better idea of what your activities should be and how you can best measure them.

Know your audience. In addition to knowing with whom you should be talking, you’ll want to know where to find them. By publishing quality content with effective keywords, you will see your audience build over time. Participate on channels where your prospects are likely to be found. Become part of the discussion by asking questions, soliciting opinions, providing answers and sharing great information. Your current followers will be a great referral source. Remember to recruit fans and followers offline, too. Placing the familiar Facebook and Twitter icons at the bottom of your club’s printed materials is a quick way to let members and prospects know that they can find you on those sites. You can even include SMS texting instructions so that members and guests can join your forum via cell phone.

Quality of the message trumps quantity. With so many social media outlets, it is easy to bite off more than you can chew. For best results, craft a focused channel strategy. Begin by targeting just a couple of platforms that seem well-suited to your objectives. It may be appropriate to add more tools down the road, but concentrating your efforts on a select few may help you gain better traction. Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, think of ways your activities on each site can work. A copy-and-paste of content across multiple networks will not be as effective as tailoring content for each unique social media stream.

NEXT PAGE: WHY CONTENT AND GUIDELINES MATTER

The content counts. High-quality content is an integral part of your social media program’s success, but bear in mind that the days of the Internet as a one-way street are over. Content encompasses far more than SEO-optimized articles, blog posts or static data you have made public on the Internet. In the broadest sense of the word, content is anything shared in the course of an online interaction. It is a form of currency between your audience and you. The more valuable the audience finds your exchange of information—whether an educational article, an opportunity to give feedback or a friendly chat—the stronger your relationship becomes. In this new environment, data, distribution and delivery are inextricably intertwined in your content-sharing strategies.

Rules of the road. Set clear guidelines about your company’s expectations and policies for the day-to-day management of social media activities. Who is authorized to post on behalf of the company? How frequently should they post? What is the expected turnaround time for responding to comments? Who is responsible for planning content? How will you measure audience engagement and monitor social mentions? In addition to outlining responsibilities for dedicated social media employees, many organizations have adopted formal company-wide social media policies or expanded their existing communications, Internet usage or ethics policies to specifically include social media.

Think playground not pulpit. A lot of what you need to know about social media you learned in kindergarten: make friends, share, play nice and take turns. One of the greatest things you can do to build your own social media circle is to participate in other forums. Nobody enjoys playing with the bossy kid. Avoid being the lunk who tries to dominate every conversation or who pushes products instead of building relationships.

Nobody’s perfect. You will undoubtedly come across negative feedback at some point, whether it stems from a poorly worded post or an unsatisfactory customer experience. Resist any impulse to try to erase it or cover it up. Handle complaints promptly and own up to any missteps. Propose a solution and offer sincere thanks for the feedback. If the complaint was brought up publicly, keep the resolution process as transparent as is appropriate. Be sure to share any relevant information with your team so that everyone can be on the same page. By reacting with honesty and integrity, you will earn the trust of your followers, and they will rally to your defense if you have been targeted with unwarranted criticism.

Different strokes. Develop a strategy that makes sense for your company. Although many best practices have emerged, few absolutes exist in the world of social media. Tools and trends continue to evolve, so staying abreast of the ever-changing landscape is critical. Take advantage of free resources online to learn new tips and tricks.

Stick with it. In many ways, social media is like exercise. Regular activity over a sustained period of time will yield the best results.

Christine Thalwitz is director of communications and research at ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers. She believes that social media marketing without a strategy is like driving cross country without a map.