By Brad Shorr, Director of Content and Social Media, Straight North.  Brad, with C-level executive experience in B2B, has been an active blogger and social media participant since 2005. He writes frequently on social media topics. His articles have appeared on industry-leading websites including Smashing Magazine, Six Revisions and Search Engine Journal. Straight North, an Internet marketing agency headquartered near Chicago, offers marketing, website development and branding services to midsized and large firms.

When an executive grapples with social media marketing, he or she might feel a lot like I do when taking my car to the mechanic. There’s a lot I don’t know; there’s a lot I don’t want to know. I’m not sure of the accuracy of what I’m being told, and I question the motives of the person who’s telling me. I’d just as soon ignore the slight rattle in my engine, but I know if I do, there will be hell to pay later. Reluctantly, skeptically – I take action.

With this in mind, here are four recommendations that can help overcome the trepidation and put you in the social media driver’s seat.

Separate Noise from Knowledge

No business leader should feel comfortable making high-level decisions about social media strategy without a base level of knowledge. However, to acquire it one must consider the source carefully. Social media evangelists are persuasive, but they tend to be highly theoretical and downplay real-world obstacles. Social media cynics, in sharp contrast, are consumed by the obstacles and ignore the significant benefits that a well-crafted social media program can deliver.

Action. Seek counsel from those who have real-world social media experience and realistically evaluate the terrain. There are many such people out there – and they can help transform your business.

Rationally Ration Your Assets

If the executive team lacks foundational knowledge, it usually underestimates the skill and effort required to conduct a social media program. If one’s mental image of a social media specialist is a nerdy twenty-something blithely tweeting the day away – nothing could be further from the truth.

Skill. Among the skills I have found to be crucial to social media success are strategic thinking, a keen understanding of people and persuasion, organization, the ability to work on a team, search engine optimization (SEO) and web analytics. It is unlikely for a person of any age to possess all of these skills. Teams are essential.

Effort. Building a community on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – and now we must add Google+ to the basic mix – takes a great deal of time. Unless you have millions of brand evangelists already, expect to log many hours inspiring people to listen and engage. On top of this, results and tactics must be reviewed frequently and expertly, since the first approach is seldom a winner and the social platforms themselves change, sometimes radically, from day to day.

Action. Evaluate your internal resources carefully. If you are short on time or talent, expand your staff and/or find a social media partner. Social on a shoestring budget never works.

Employ a One Step at a Time Strategy

Well-intentioned, smart companies routinely fail in social media because their strategic plan is too broad … or altogether absent. Either failing is understandable because so many tantalizing goals are available: customer engagement, brand awareness, thought leadership, lead generation, sales conversion, SEO and customer services, to name a few of the most obvious. Once the decision has been made to deploy, it becomes hard to shake the impulse to do it all.

Being overly incremental can also derail the program. A certain critical mass of activity is necessary to attract and engage an audience. Tweeting once a day and publishing a blog post once or twice a month will not put a firm on anyone’s radar. In fact, doing too little can be worse than doing nothing at all: a lame social media presence makes a business appear uninspired, uncommitted and uninterested in engaging its market.

Action. Pack as many objectives as make sense into your long-term plan, but attack them one at a time, putting everything you have into a focused effort. In the initial phases of social media, which could mean months or even a year, steady progress is more important – and more obtainable – than chasing overnight success.

View Social Media as a Process, Not a Project

Unlike many types of Internet marketing where the formulas and platforms are relatively stable, social media is unsettled in every respect. Technologies, mobile in particular, are changing user behavior and consequently, social engagement best practices. And the newest 800-lb gorilla in the room, Google+, promises to radically alter the social terrain as it challenges the dominance of Facebook.

Action. Stay involved and keep your team on its toes. No marketing initiative can succeed for long on autopilot, and social media least of all.