Most companies are still approaching social media in the wrong way, says Larry Friedman, the chief research officer at TNS, North America. He points out marketers’ biggest mistakes and explains why return on investment is so tough to measure.

(Interview has been condensed and edited.)

LINKEDIN: WOULD YOU ARGUE THAT MOST MARKETERS DON’T GET SOCIAL MEDIA?
Larry Friedman: Yeah, I think so. A lot of people are struggling with it, partly because it’s just so different. People tend to see it as a variation off of digital (media), which is just a variation off of traditional (media) in some sense. But they haven’t really gotten that it’s fundamentally different. And the major fundamental difference has to do with that lack of control. It’s not about you – it’s about people talking. You can make it very complicated sounding if you want, but if you strip away social media to its essence, it’s people talking. As a brand, how do you become part of that conversation?

SO IT’S ABOUT INTERJECTING YOURSELF INTO EXISTING CONVERSATIONS?
Well, interjection is a funny term. You can be a bore on social media by talking about yourself. So I think everybody is still trying to sort that out. It’s still really very new. One of my concerns is that there’s just going to be a lot of pressure to show results really quickly and companies are going to lose interest if they don’t see some immediate result, or they don’t sort it all out within months.

GIVEN THAT, SHOULD BRANDS FOCUS LESS ON ROI IN SOCIAL MEDIA?
When you start to talk about ROI, CFOs immediately start thinking about dollars, which is what their job is and that’s ultimately what the job of business is – to drive revenue. When you think of social media ROI, you have to start thinking about: What is the return and what is the investment? And how does this contribute towards building business? It may not be as direct as call-to-action advertising.

CAN YOU THINK OF A COMPANY THAT’S DOING THIS WELL?
A lot of the (consumer packaged goods) companies, the automotive companies, are really trying lots of different things. It’s a matter of being really active and being open-minded and experimental at this point. To be part of any good conversation, you have to show interest in the other party, and your thought has to be around engaging the other party in the conversation. So it’s not a matter of controlling the conversation.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE OTHER SOCIAL MEDIA MISTAKES PEOPLE ARE MAKING?
Well, one of the things is when they’re basically putting an advertisement onto social media, and somehow they think they have a social media campaign.

IT DOESN’T WORK LIKE THAT, RIGHT?
No, it doesn’t work like that. Let’s get real. You’re forgetting about the word “social” and you’re only thinking about the word “media” — this is just another place where I can put my advertisement. We’re thinking about how do you engage people in the long run? There are just so many simple things that brands need to do to build a relationship. The basic fundamental mistake that I see made is just treating this as another place to put advertising.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE THAT’S IMPORTANT TO KEEP IN MIND?
I’m seeing a little bit of a divorce between social media as a listening platform. In other words, using it as a source of information. That’s what a lot of people have done, starting five years ago. But, we’re seeing a real shift in brands wanting to be active in marketing their brands in social media. And when you think of conversation, you can’t really divorce the two. It’s a matter of listening carefully and speaking.