One of the most common complaints of marketers is that they don’t know how to do social media. Or more precisely, they don’t know how to measure its effects. It shouldn’t be so hard.

Brian Solis, author of the social media guide book Engage, observed last week that brands are not taking advantage of the data available through social media platforms. As a result, they are not forming an understanding of who they are interacting with, or how.

The problem, perhaps, is that marketers have come to assume there is only one way to use social media without alienating people. That is to provide them with compelling content and engage them in conversations that interest them without expecting a sale in return.

But as Solis says of social media: “It can’t just be about conversation. This has to be at the beginning: what is it that you want out of it?” Undoubtedly, conversation is a way of spreading awareness, and probably improving sentiment towards a brand, but how do you know whether this is benefiting the bottom line?

Pushing a sales pitch through social media is likely to turn people off, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of collecting data on how sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare or Google+ are influencing the way people interact with a business. The data can come from a company’s own analytics and from third-party software, as well as from the social media site itself.

That means that another favourite question of marketers – what is a Facebook ’like’ worth? – ought to be redundant. Having fans or followers on social media may not be of commercial benefit in itself, but it offers an audience for further communication, for example links that a brand might post to content on its own website.

At this stage, users’ behaviour becomes infinitely measurable. Using URL shorteners like bitly will allow access to analytics on every individual link – how many clicked it, when, and where they were when they did it. And if the link leads to the company’s site, the consumers are in your back yard and it’s easy to see where they go.

You might not make many sales there and then but if links drive up web traffic and encourage further visits, purchases are likely to follow before long.

This sounds like a long journey, and it is. But the essence of social media is that consumers choose how they engage – they can’t be forced. What marketers should be trying to do is pave the way from social media to the brand and measure what is working with the numerous tools available.