For a very long time I hated social media. Brands flocked to gain followers and fans, but to what end? It felt like the early days of email, when companies put forth initiative after initiative to capture email addresses, without much thought to how they would use them. The key difference though, is that companies could always generate ROI from email addresses by sending out an email. It has never been as clear how a company could possibly use a “like” to drive ROI.

Until recently, email and social integration has been a tactical afterthought. Advice on how to add social to email has ranged from the tactical “add a like button” to the also tactical “add customer generated content”. Yes, these are smart things to do. But email can do so much more. And so my discontent with social media continued.

Things are starting to change though. As social media continues to gain momentum, people are becoming more open to sharing their interests and wants with the general public. Companies are starting to tackle the huge task of making sense out of mountains of raw, unstructured data. This data has the potential to enable businesses to truly listen. Not just to a click or an open (which stretches the definition of “listening” nearly to the breaking point), but to an ongoing stream of information about specific interests that (may) translate into ROI. And to be clear, we’re not just talking about social listening trends, but individually attributable and actionable data. As consumers become accustomed to having this public information used, they will become more receptive to seeing their needs, wants, interests and desires fed back to them across multiple channels – even marketing channels.

Aside from the smart but tactical suggestions we’re all familiar with already, there are three things every email marketer should do today to pave the way to true integration with social.

  1. Make friends with the social team at your company. Just as you work with the search engine marketing team to understand how to integrate search terms into your emails, you need to start understanding what customers are saying right before they decide they need you. The social team has been developing expertise with social listening tools for some time. Rather than developing the same skills yourself, tap into their knowledge and keep your focus on using the data rather than interpreting it. Those trigger phrases may translate into triggered emails – or possibly trigger a much larger campaign.
  2. Identify a partner for initial tests. When customers announce to their social media friends that they want what your company provides, it’s difficult to take that unstructured data and turn it into actionable flags in your database. It is unlikely that your in-house analytics team has this expertise yet – almost no one does – or that they have the time to develop it. Look around at your company’s vendors. Find out which ones focus on analytics, customer data, or data warehousing, and ask whether they’re working on any initiatives to parse social data. If they are, ask how you can partner with them on some early tests. These tests will give you some great learnings, and make it easier to get even more funding for your programs in the next budget cycle.
  3. Make privacy a priority. Your ability to take advantage of what your customers say in the very public social space is entirely dependent on your customers’ trust in your company’s ability to keep their information private. There is a very real and justified concern about privacy that threatens to derail social marketing. Find out who the privacy advocate is in your company and lend them your support. In return, you’ll get the information you need to understand the privacy concerns of your customers without spending a lot of time following the issue.

One last thing: start developing your social media strategy. It’s finally time to move beyond the “like” button, and start thinking about data – one of the things email does best. You may just come to like social media for what it does for your email program.

Originally published on MediaPost.com’s Email Insider blog. View comments there.