The message is starting to get through to entrepreneurs: the difference between social media being simply a massive time suck and a valuable marketing tool is setting clear goals and measuring your progress towards them.

Here's the data to prove it: "In our first survey, 'do not measure' was the most common response to questions about social business measurement. While more than half of the least socially mature companies in this year's survey don't measure their efforts, more than 90 percent of maturing companies actively do," report the authors of the 2014 State of Social Business Report for the MIT Sloan Management Review.

But while business owners have made impressive strides towards a more data-driven approach to social, according to report co-author and Carroll School of Management at Boston College professor Jerry Kane, that doesn't mean they've got this whole measuring social media thing down cold. Commenting on the report for the MIT Sloan Management Review blog, Kane argues that while businesses may be watching their numbers, many of those companies are measuring social media wrong.

How so? Kane laid out several common mistakes including:

1. If X is working, why not do more of it?

It's natural to think that if you're doing X thing and it leads to more of Y outcome you're after, you should keep on doing more of X. But Kane insists that many metrics are only good up to a point--after that there's a Goldilocks effect (not too hot, not too cold) where more isn't better.

"For example, we studied retention rates in an online community and found that the community operated best when there were moderate levels of people joining and leaving. Too much turnover meant that the community never developed an identity or direction, but too little turnover meant that the community became too rigid and insulated from new ways of thinking," he writes.

2. You expect communities to remain constant

The profile of the community you're aiming to serve is relatively constant, so you might expect that the behavior and preferences of people gathered around your social media presence to remain fairly steady across time. But Kane insists that community behavior actually shifts and develops as members' comfort level and degree of interest naturally changes over time.

"Groups develop through distinct stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing--even though the group did not have any formal leadership or stable membership," he explains. "Managers should recognize that the effects in social media communities could change over time. More of X may lead to more of Y at one point in time, but the story may be different in the future."

3. You're not prepared for feedback loops

You work along steadily building your social media presence and expect that your metrics will follow a similar linear and predictable trajectory in line with your efforts. Not always, notes Kane. Sometimes synergies take hold and communities evolve in leaps and bounds, shocking those charged with monitoring them.

"We found that in user-generated content communities, more content attracted more users, who then created more content, which in turn attracted still more users," he offers as an example. "These types of feedback loops can lead to rapid growth cycles that are difficult to manage." The takeaway for managers? "Watch for sudden expansions or contractions in activity, and adjust to compensate."

Are you taking an overly simple approach to measuring your social media efforts?

Published on: Oct 14, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.