If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit.
There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.

~W.C. Fields

I HAVE BEEN LIVING AND BREATHING AND CONSUMING AND QUAFFING social media for over five years now. Our agency has invested tens of thousands of hours with dozens of clients, from small businesses like George Howell Coffee to multinational corporations like HP, trying and testing every conceivable digital marketing strategy and tactic to forge a proven success formula. In other words: what steps — applied to any business — results in social media success?

First, a healthy dose of perspective: Social media has just emerged from the Dark Ages. We’re now in the Age of Enlightenment, and while reason is beginning to prevail, the light bulb has yet to be invented. We’re still feeling our way around in ill-lit conditions, swilling Gilly Flower Cordials (17th century libation) and making out and passing out — and acting as if we know what in the heck is going on. Truth be told: we don’t. Nobody knows what works definitively yet in social. If Malcolm Gladwell is right (and, I believe he is), there are no social media experts. That distinction requires 10,000 hours of dedicated work. Nobody has had sufficient time to log those hours (save perhaps Vaynerchuk). As hard as we work, and as good as we are, my agency has enjoyed soaring successes (picture a glimmering Clio) — and fantastic failures (picture a Borat bikini).

But, it’s all good. That which has not killed us has made us stronger. We have whittled down the social success formula to 12 steps. This is merely our best crack at it. As you’ll see, many of the steps are not directly related to social media. That’s because: a) there is more to life than money, and b) social media works best within a strategic, integrated marketing mix that is continually honed, refined, lathered, rinsed — and repeated.

Here are the 12 steps:

1. Define What Success Means to You. Most people rush into the frenzied bacchanalia of social media with nary a notion as to what in the heck they want! “Look at all of these well-exfoliated, tech-savvy, Gilly Flower Cordial quaffing fashionistas on Twitter! I have to get on there and Tweet my ab routine!” I ask you: “Why? Why are you engaging in social media?” To you, success may not be measured in dollars. There is more to life than money. You might define success as the amount of good you do, measured in total number of positive @replies from people who you’ve helped or dollars raised for good causes. (Yes, those are invaluable “metrics.”) Now, if you are running a business, then revenue and related metrics will matter. In that case, you need to define success as narrowly as possible and be specific (e.g. “100 new, engaged Twitter followers a week,” “80%+ positive online sentiment,” “$5,000/month in new online sales,” etc.).

2. Emotionalize Your Brand. We are in a word-of-mouth economy, and people only share “awesome.” By that I mean you need to supercharge and emotionalize your brand message. Immediately. You need to take a long, invigorating walk in the woods and marinate over why your business exists. Why should people care? Take a moment to watch this video (first three minutes, particularly) about the importance of “why.” Then, write down a few why-driven sentences about you/your business that will resonate with people. Remember, features and benefits win minds. Why wins hearts. And, when you win the hearts of these newly-empowered consumers, they will roll up like a juggernaut and power your business to great heights. For free.

3. Know Your Audience. Be as specific as possible relative to psychographics and demographics. Spend some time listening to what people are saying about you online. The simplest way to do this is to Google your company or use the native platforms or use more advanced tools such as Hootsuite or Radian6. Youcan no longer tell people what they want (Madison Avenue); you have to find out what they want. And, that begins with listening. I know it’s uncharted waters for most big brands, but they need to learn the art of listening–or they may be left behind with blinding speed.

4. Optimize Your Website. Your website/blog/online store/etc. is your primary destination for consumer call to action. It should be simply and elegantly designed around the one thing you want your visitors to do: one clear call to action. One. Otherwise, visitors will suffer paralysis by analysis, do nothing–and leave. Make sure you’ve installed Google Analytics on your site, and study visitor behavior. Then, start making improvements around what you’re seeing in the data.

5. Scale Your Social. Once you know what you want, establish the social platforms that make sense. If you are a B2B company, then Linkedin will make more sense than Pinterest. Once you’ve established your social outposts, be sure they have the same well-branded appearance as your website and other marketing materials. Then, create stellar, “share-worthy content,” start engaging with influential people in your space — and scale those social platforms! Having 100 engaged followers is great. Having 100,000 means you can really move the needle. From your mobile device. While you’re in Fiji. In minutes.

6. Embrace Email. Email still rules as the primary mode of communication online, and email marketing ranks high in terms of conversion. Constant Contact, MailChimp and VerticalResponse are three excellent services that can get you up and running in no time. Be sure to deliver great content and integrate your messaging across your social media platforms. Also, use email to draw more people into your social communities, e.g.: “Engage with us on Twitter for real-time customer service!” “Get exclusive deals on our Facebook page.”

7. Go Mainstream (Media). If you play your cards right, the mainstream media will cover your story. Create something buzz-worthy about your business. Do something creative and unique. Then reach out to local newspapers, television and radio and tell them why their viewers would love to learn about your business. (Not why you deserve to be on TV, but why their viewers would benefit from your information. Big difference.)

8. Know Your SEO. You want to optimize your website and blog content for your desired keywords, so that when people search for: “finest alpaca backpacks,” your amazing alpaca backpack site shows up. Spend some time learning more about Search Engine Optimization. Now, I don’t think you’re a dummy (heck, you are this far into this diatribe; you’re brilliant…and stubborn!), but a nice, easy-to-read resource for SEO is: Search Engine Optimization All-in One For Dummies (For Dummies, 2012).

9. Free to Be PPC. I quite enjoy intelligently-designed, brilliantly-deployed pay-per-click advertising. The impressions are free, and if you engage a well-thought-out long-tail strategy, you are driving interested people to your (optimized, see above!) website. Remember, with PPC, you don’t need to create the demand in people’s minds (as is the case with a print ad or TV commercial). People who go online and make specific, intentional searches are already there. They already want your alpaca backpacks. Craft compelling ad copy that is congruent with the user’s searches, and then make sure your landing pages are seamless with that ad copy — and you’re off to the races.

10. Swing for the Fences. To put your brand on the map, you can toil away day-in and day-out for years, but one knockout appearance on The Today Show can tip it in one fell swoop. Most people shy away from thinking big, because they think they’re not good enough (or ready) for mainstream coverage. Guess what? You are. Want proof? Look at some of the people who appear on talk shows. If they can do it, you can do it! Emotionalize your brand, craft a clever pitch, and use Twitter to engage mainstream media. A recent study found that journalists prefer pitches via Twitter over Facebook, email and the dreaded press release. If you believe in yourself and your product/service/alpaca thing, then your tipping point is out there. Go knock it over.

11. Learn. Refine. (Repeat.) The beauty of social media and digital marketing are the real-time results and insights they provide. The best results come from letting the data drive your strategy. For example, if a certain platform is generating results, channel time and resources to there and keep pushing. Always draw actionable insights out of your social data.

12. Enjoy the Process. This should be fun. Life should be fun. Enjoy the process of striving for success in social media. Build a better business, live a better life, create a better world! You have never had more power at your fingertips than you do right now. Use it well, use it wisely — and keep at it. Because these channels move so outrageously far, fast and wide, your “brand” can tip at any moment and when you least expect it

Just stick in there — and enjoy a Gilly Flower Cordial while you’re at it. You deserve it.