Many company leaders understand that in order to survive in today’s business world, their companies must have a social media presence. But when no strategy is present, here’s what happens: Individuals from different departments tweet at will, using the company’s official handle.

Some of these 140-character messages are loaded down with cumbersome language from the company’s Web copy guidelines; others are peppered with abbreviations like “u,” “r,” and “2.” On Facebook, users who “like” the company’s page find that their newsfeeds are bombarded with promotions, surveys, and so called “news.” Meanwhile, clients are posting positive and negative feedback on both sites. Sometimes these comments receive responses; sometimes they don’t. (And that’s not even taking into account LinkedIn, Pinterest, the company’s blog, and more!)

In using such a scattershot approach to social media, these organizations are missing out on major opportunities to engage with potential and current customers, manage their reputations, and more—and they may be alienating social media users in the process. Without a social media strategy, how do you know what you’re trying to achieve, what you should be doing, how well you’re doing, what you should be measuring, and what the ROI of your social media program is?

If your company is going to enter the social media world, you need a strategy because it standardizes messaging, determines how resources are used, defines which tactics you will and won’t pursue, serves as a road map, and will still carry on its purpose through personnel changes. When formulating a strategy, be sure to look at the implications it will have on all of your internal stakeholders and include them in the planning.

Branding: Be consistent across all channels. Most businesses already have brand guidelines (including naming, color scheme, and imagery), and these should be applied to your social media properties as well. After all, branding is all about consistency, right? The challenge, though, is that most branding guidelines don’t include any guidance for the most important part of your brand in social media conversations: your voice.

Although your brand guidelines might make mention of tone and vocabulary for use in Web copy, social media will challenge those guidelines when you need to have a conversation with an average person. In most instances it’s okay to be less formal on social media channels—just make sure that your updates, statuses, comments, etc. ‘speak’ with a unified voice. In the planning process, be sure to ask who represents the voice of your company in your social media branding guidelines.

Content: Engage in conversation. Although cynics might dub it a mindless vacuum, social media is really about the convergence of communication and information. That being the case, what you share and talk about with social media users is important. Content provides the medium to help you engage in conversation—and creating content that is truly resourceful and shareable can have many long-term benefits to your company’s social media presence. Keep in mind that content isn’t just about blog posts, photos, and videos. Think outside of the box! Presentations, infographics, memes, and even discussions (such as in a LinkedIn Group) are all types of content that should be considered for your social media strategy!

Curation: Share meaningful content. If you’re just talking about yourself in social media, no one wants to listen (much like regular conversation!). It’s only when you begin to curate content that is of interest to your followers and promote it, together with your own content, that your social media accounts begin to breathe new life. If you work in a business-to-business (B2B) company, this will often come down to content that you might already be sharing with your current and prospective clients on sales calls, in newsletters, or during informative webinars. And don’t forget that crowdsourcing content is also a great way of curating—especially if it is from your own fans’ tweets about and photos of your products!

Channels: Join the right networks for your company. There are currently more than 50 social networks with more than 10 million members. You can’t—and shouldn’t—have a presence on every single one of them. Deciding which social networks to engage in, and creating internal best practices and tactical plans for each of these networks, will form a sizable part of your social media strategy.

Frequency: Post strategically, not constantly. No two social networks are alike, and with limited resources, you’ll need to decide how much time you are going to spend on each platform, as well as what you’ll be doing there. (This will help you to maximize your ROI for time and resources spent.) It’s also important to tweak your frequency strategy for each social network from time to time so as to maximize the effectiveness of your posting.

Engagement: Be worthy of being followed. Engagement should be considered in both its proactive and reactive forms. While most companies do well at proactively engaging with their own content—posting both new content and conversations, as well as the sharing of content and information from others—proactively engaging with new social media users and reactively engaging with those who comment or respond to your updates is equally important to create an effective social media presence.

Listening: Interact meaningfully with customers. It’s official: The customer service desk has gone digital. From complaints to questions to (yes!) praise, consumers (67 percent of them, in fact) are using social media to convey their thoughts, opinions, and queries. Your company needs to have a listening—and responding—strategy in place. Remember that listening means more than merely being on the lookout for complaints to defuse. Every engagement with a social media user is a golden opportunity, because it can give you real-time feedback on what your customers are thinking, liking, needing, buying, etc. And lastly, remember that a meaningful interaction with a customer—a problem resolved or a question answered, for instance—can win you the type of loyalty that money can’t buy.

Campaign: Regularly introduce new ways to engage customers. Social media campaigns should not be confused with traditional campaigns that are used in marketing to promote new products or discounts. Again, in the social media world, you’re not speaking to or at customers; you’re speaking with them. That being the case, social media campaigns should leverage the social aspect of social media, combined with its viral functionality, to create events that trigger engagement from followers in a new and exciting way.

Influencers: Take a cue from other users. There’s no need to navigate the world of social media on your own. Use the examples and successes of other users called influencers to help shape your own strategy and make it more effective. Influencers can consist of individual users, companies, or media outlets that 1) are a part of or serve your target demographic audience, and 2) yield influence online through reporting, blogging, and being active on platforms such as Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Brand Ambassadors: Recruit fans to spread the word. Brand ambassadors are current loyal customers and fans who help spread the word about your brand through their own social networks. They can also act as an advisory board during a crisis. Harnessing and rewarding ambassadors is a very effective way to help spread the word and value of your brand throughout social media because 92 percent of people trust recommendations from friends and family more than all other forms of marketing.

Crisis Management: Be prepared to handle trouble. Given the speed at which information travels in social media and the fact that social media is now a primary news source for consumers and the media, it is inevitable that some sort of crisis will occur. That being the case, your company needs to always be prepared for the worst (such as an attempted takeover of social media channels by fanatics and others with an agenda). Completely integrating social media into your company’s crisis management planning is a very wise decision: 76 percent of social media crises could have been diminished or averted with the proper social media investments.

Make sure that your crisis communications plan includes messaging for each of the social media channels you’ll be investing in. Beyond that, make sure that your employees are proficient at (or better yet, expert users of) the social media tools your organization utilizes so that they won’t inadvertently make a crisis worse. Secondly, you should try to proactively build a community of goodwill with followers of your brand.

Over time, your word will become more trusted, and more brand advocates will be born; both of which will help lessen the potential negative effects of any crisis.