A search for “social media strategy” returns over 7 million Web hits and nearly 500,000 blog posts on google. If you’re just starting out in social, the prospect of sifting through all that information might make you want to throw the towel in before you start. I don’t want to see you do that, so here’s a painless way to develop your first simple social strategy using the journalist’s tried and true W5H method: 5 W’s and an H.

WHY

Because this is strategy, not reporting, the question to start with is why: Why do you want to get into social? This is important because if you don’t know why you’re doing something, you can’t come up with relevant measurement goals; and – yes – you should have measurement goals. Are you trying to raise awareness, improve customer service, educate prospects, increase leads, create fans, develop a community? Why do you think social is the answer? Figure out what you’re after and then draw a line in the sand to define success.

WHO

A conversation takes two people, and you need to define who those two people are: you and your audience. To really get inside their heads, develop personas for your key audience members. Stephanie and Michele have each written great posts about how to do this. Equally as important, you need to figure out the social persona for your brand. Will your brand persona be one person, or a team of people? Will the tone of conversations be completely professional, or a mix of professional and personal? These things may evolve over time, but having a clear starting point will help create a consistent personality. So – who do you want to be?

WHAT

Now that you’ve figured out why you’re here, who you’re talking to, and who you are; you need to decide what the heck you’re going to be saying. Look at your brand and your current customer interactions. What information can you share? What services can you provide? What value can you add? Moving any of these conversations into the social realm must improve the customer experience, or it’s not worth the effort.

WHEN

Now look again at your typical customer interactions and create a picture of your customer lifecycle. Line the “What” items up along this timeline so you can easily see when you have the best opportunities to engage your audience. Pinpoint key milestones in the lifecycle when it’s easy to invite the prospect, buyer, or owner into your social community. Also look for opportunities to turbo-charge your social presence – special events, conferences, product launches, etc. Map these out and create mini strategies to integrate special coverage, offers, or conversations into your social plan.

WHERE

Ok, now you can talk about the bloody tools. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, your blog – where is your audience already hanging out, where would they be most likely to visit if you invited them, where can you execute most effectively on the “Why” items that got you involved in social in the first place?

HOW

Now you’re down to the super nitty-gritty, but this is actually the easiest part. You’ve done all the heavy lifting figuring out why you’re here, who you are, what you want to say, when and where you’re going to say it, and who will be listening. Now that you’re clear on all those foundational questions, filing in the details is easy-peasy. There are hundreds of clear, easy-to-follow online resources that can walk you step-by-step through the “How” of social marketing. Now that you’ve got your head on straight about the W questions, I can let you loose on those resources.

BONUS W: WITH

One last thought – While you’re getting yourself all gussied up for the social scene, sinking your teeth into your new engagement strategies, technical tools, and conversational voice, don’t forget that social is only one piece of your marketing arsenal. To get the best results, you need to integrate social with your other marketing channels. Include your social addresses on your static Web content and offline materials, promote your offline events and resources via your social channels. The flow between social and non-social tactics should be constant, and travel in two directions … like one of those weird membrane experiments you did in primary school science class.

And that’s it – simple social strategy using the W5H (+1W) method.

What do you think? What have I left out? Do you think some pieces deserve higher priority than others? Can you identify social strategies that are missing one or more of these elements? What’s your secret social sauce?