With over 800 million Facebook users and 100 million active Twitter users, marketers know that their world is changing. With 200 million additional users joining Facebook last year alone, the pace of change is breakneck and obligatory for markers to address. With all that, why is the hottest topic among marketers today still the struggle to derive ROI from social?

It turns out, you can have your cake and eat it too – address consumers interactively through the social channels they frequent and demonstrate real business ROI from doing so. The trick is in the fundamentals. ROI from any channel will not yield from base monitoring of general conversations alone. The bigger value for a business and the consumers it serves is to enable social conversations about specific products and services right at the point where the buying process is taking place – when the shopper is in buying mode and looking for this type of dialogue. Sounds simple, right? It is, but few marketers are applying the fundamentals to their marketing.

By following five straightforward steps, you can open up profitable social conversations around your products and calculate real ROI in the process.

1. Be social where shoppers are buying

If “F-Commerce” or commerce on Facebook were as pervasive as search is to Google, then ROI would be easy – just activate advocates on Facebook and measure. But that’s not the case. F-Commerce has yet to prove out and consumers don’t rely on one social site to make purchase decisions. And pushing hard-sale marketing messages on social networks doesn’t go over well with users.

Rather, the average shopper checks 10.4 different information sources before making a purchase. With that in mind, it makes sense to encourage online conversations at all consideration points along the buyer’s journey, including: Product brand sites, retail sites, social channels, and search engines. When shopper conversations are enabled, research shows that consumers are 105% more likely to buy and spend 11% more per transaction after interacting with other consumers online.

2. Enable conversations that help consumers buy

Rather than general chats, conversations at specific points along the buyer’s journey have purpose. Those who have purchased before want to share their experiences. Those who are purchasing now want to learn from that shared knowledge to make their own purchase decisions. Enabling conversations at relevant points along the buyer’s journey is important because consumers trust the opinions of others nearly 12 times more than the messaging from brands.

The question is how to encourage such engagements specifically about your products and services. The answer is through natural triggers that consumers would find useful along the way such as: Reading and writing ratings and reviews, submitting questions to forums and like-minded shoppers, or just sharing product/brand experience stories. Applying the right social enablers at key milestones opens up dialog that is good for everyone.

3. Get found with fresh user-generated content

The next step is to build a solid volume of conversations about your products and services. You need this for your ROI calculation and search can help you do it. Nearly two-thirds (61%) of consumers use search engines to help with product research leading up to a purchase. User generated content on your brand or retail site creates favorable SEO gains because search engines like fresh content and cross-linking to other sites. The social enablers that you’ve embedded into your brand or retail site can activate search engines to attract the right volume of shoppers.

4. Use multiple paths to show ROI

With your social enablers anchored at every point in the buyer’s journey and high enough volume to establish accurate trending, you are ready for your ROI calculation. True social ROI is calculated by comparing revenue lift from those pages that offer social interactions with consumers vs. those that do not. Hong Kong Import Ltd., an online fishing retailer, for example, realized a 250% increase in conversion from consumers who interacted with user-generated content on its site.

The three best elements of an ROI equation are: (increased transactions) plus (increased revenue per transaction) plus (decrease in product returns). To measure all, you need the embedded social enablers, a solid volume of social discussion, and a disciplined approach to track the difference between a socially enabled audience and one that is not. You may find that the difference between the two is significant.

5. Measure your social mix to optimize results

Once you’ve established your baselines for each channel, now is the time to optimize all the elements that you’ve put in place to prompt good conversations. Such elements include social content types, formats, and messages. This process will provide the data you need to maximize your social investment and allocate your budget to your highest performing tactics and social channels.

Measuring ROI takes a bit of effort but it’s a task that can help increase sales in the process and align your social strategy with fundamental business goals in a measurable way. Execute the 5-steps process and watch your measurable social ROI add up.

My white paper about this topic, available for download here, goes much deeper into each of these steps. Read it and learn how social can measurably increase KPIs you’re already striving for, proving real ROI.