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One of the most common questions business leaders ask about social media engagement is: What is the return on investment? The answer to this question is at the root of why many social media initiatives outright fail or fall short of business leaders' expectations.

Return is a function of investment

There's nothing wrong with expecting a positive return on your investment in social media. But how are you measuring your investment in the first place?

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If you're like most people that are active on social media, you're probably paying more attention to how many retweets you get, and how often what you share is liked on LinkedIn or Facebook than you do to how often you are doing these things yourself. You're probably thinking of all the ways you can use your social media accounts to promote your business and its products and services and drive traffic to your website.

Then, you're asking yourself: what did I get from all this effort? Did I get any new leads? And if I did, how many converted to new business opportunities?

Before you conclude that you may be wasting your time for the measly return, let me ask you an important question: What did you invest in social media?

If you're investing time and resources in social media mostly to promote yourself, drive traffic to your website and convert leads to new business, you're likely going to be disappointed.

Social networks like givers way more than takers.

Stop focusing on getting and start focusing on giving

How many of us count how many times we're liking, thanking, commenting and sharing other people's content? Not many, in my experience.

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Most of us don't pay as much attention to what we're giving in social networks as we do to what we're getting from them.

Adopting a proactive giving strategy – paying it forward, if you will – is the key to social engagement and building social capital in the influence economy.

In social media, we promote ourselves by promoting others. We attract attention to ourselves by shining a light on others.

Try this. Set a "giving budget" for your social media activities and actually identify some goals. How many "likes" do you want to give each week? How many times do you want to comment? If you're connected to your clients on social networks, you should be setting a giving budget specifically for them.

Here are some easy ways to focus on giving more to your social networks:

1. Use lists and share content. Track influencers and clients using Twitter lists and Google+ circles, then try to share something from those people every day.

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2. Pay some attention. Invest some time and mental energy each week to review the feeds (Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, etc.) of your key influencers and clients and look for opportunities to comment and engage. People will take notice and reciprocate if you are consistently paying them attention.

3. Give credit where it's due. When you share anything, mention the source. Say you discover a great article shared by a contact on LinkedIn and you tweet it, you should give that person credit on Twitter with a mention.

4. Endorse people on LinkedIn. It's an easy and effective way to be top of mind. And don't just endorse them for all the topics that the LinkedIn algorithm suggests because sometimes those aren't very contextually relevant to your relationship. Be relevant.

5. Like and comment thoughtfully. It's easy to click 'like' on articles shared to LinkedIn and Facebook, but take the extra time to read/scan what's being shared and add a meaningful comment. "Great post" is a nice thought, but trying to be more thoughtful is a better investment.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Jay Palter is a social media strategist and speaker with over two decades of professional experience in financial services, software development and marketing. To subscribe to his newsletter, go to http://jaypalter.ca/payitforward.

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