Over the past couple of years, Social has joined Email to become the channels of choice in marketing communications. I’m not surprised by the social’s popularity in marketing departments. Like email, it’s an extremely good value, with direct expenses significantly below direct mail, print or display advertising, and search. And because social and email are relatively inexpensive, they’re far more resistant to budget cuts, pressing them more deeply into service as costlier channels are used more sparingly.

But absolute cost and even ROI are not enough if the channels are not effective in actually moving the needle. Email long ago proved its usefulness in marketing communications, and continues to be a principal driver of web visits, conference registrations, membership renewals and other revenue-generating activity, in addition to fulfilling its newsletter and announcement duties admirably. For its part, Social is also beginning to have a meaningful impact on marketing results. Facebook and Twitter are starting to crack the top 5 sources of web traffic at many organizations. And both Email and Social are scalable, with virtually no limit to the number of people they can reach and engage.

So in theory, Social is like email: Inexpensive, effective and scalable. In practice, however, many organizations recognize the value Social can provide, but have not yet been able to harness it. Fans and followers still lag behind email subscribers in volume, and this groundswell of conversation promised by the pundits doesn’t seem to be materializing. Over the past years, your organization has developed the expertise with email in order to rely on it as a mainstay in your marketing communications: how do you get as good at social as you are at email?

1. Dedicate resources. We hear anecdotes and read case studies about how some organizations have several, dozens, or even hundreds of people contributing to a social presence. The examples come off as aspirational but are a bit of a red herring. It takes a long time for an organization’s social strategy to develop to the point where it can be decentralized. To start, most companies find a single person has to lead the charge, at least to launch the initiative and establish processes. This takes time and requires attention – every day. To be successful, an organization needs to not just dedicate a person to building a social presence, but also make sure that the person has the time to do it. Most marketing staff is already at 100%. Realistically, for someone to successfully devote him or herself to social, other responsibilities have to be lifted in order to make room. Piling social onto an already full plate won’t give it the space it needs to succeed.

2. Set goals. A couple of years ago it would have been perfectly reasonable to “experiment” with social or “test the waters” a bit. But we know now that social is here to stay, and when your organization begins to develop its social strategy it should be with a long-term vision. Your objective is not to determine if social is right for your organization; it is to discover the ways in which social can be most profitable to your business. Instead of testing, organizations should be setting clear goals for their social objectives. These might include a target number of fans or followers within a given time frame, or a percentage of web traffic coming from social channels. Internal goals should be included as well, such as a target number of posts or tweets per week. In addition to allowing the organization to determine how effective its tactics are, goals make the initiative matter more – both to the people driving it, and their managers.

3. Institutionalize expertise. If you market with email, you probably already read some of the trade pubs like MediaPost and ClickZ, to stay on top of what’s happening and learn new tactics. Now it’s time to do the same thing with social. Subscribe to the newsletters at your favorite sites about social media, and get on the email lists for some social media conferences you’d like to attend. As you get smarter in the discipline yourself, institutionalize your expertise by sharing it with colleagues so that they are equally invested. Forward a relevant article about how a competitor is using Facebook, or pass along some tweets from another company in your industry that you think are particularly effective. One person may drive your social strategy early on, but when it grows (which it will) it will require a team effort. Best to get the team engaged and mobilized from the outset.

4. Emphasize analytics. I think the single most important reason email has grown the way it has is the accessibility of its analytics. Having visibility into how well email is working and with whom not only improves how an organization uses email, it also proves the ROI with each message. I admit that the analytics available through social currently are not as robust as email. But they are soon to get better (you heard it here first…), and until they are as accessible and insightful as your email dashboard, there is still much to be gleaned. Facebook’s Insights have improved vastly over the past six months, now disclosing useful trends in audience engagement. Services like Klout help measure how influential your Twitter is, and Social Mention helps you track conversations about your brand across the social web. There are dozens of others, and while most are not yet ready for prime time they are still worth exploring if only to start conditioning an organization to expect metrics from social channels, and educate marketers about what types of data are the most relevant to their own businesses.