Once upon a time, a company was ‘online’ if it had a basic website. That time, of course, is long past. Instead, a brand’s presence needs to be highly distributed across different online channels and modes. A brand may or may not have a bricks and mortar location, but it certainly has a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, one or several blogs, and a Pinterest board or Springpad (in which my company is an investor), for starters.

And it’s not just the channels – companies need to be reachable across different devices, browsers and, of course, downloadable apps. Communication between brands and consumers has become much more democratized, with consumers reacting quickly, loudly and publicly.

All of this makes life dramatically harder for chief marketing officers. Maintaining and driving brand cohesiveness across one channel is hard enough. Expanding this to dozens of channels and platforms, while keeping the brand strength intact, is much more difficult. CMOs need to be able to innovate quickly across these channels, drive brand engagement, and define and measure success. Ultimately, this should lead to increased sales. 

But defining success from engagement to sales has been almost impossible. Consider Burberry, one of best-managed consumer brands. I am one of the 11.6 million Facebook members that have “liked” their page; yet, until today, I hadn’t been to their Facebook page for months. Is my “like” worth anything? On their page, I see that 261,000 fans, or 2.25% of its audience base, is talking about the brand. Is that a good or bad number? How does the “talking” translate into referrals and purchases? You can imagine how complicated this gets if we try to account for multiple channels, look at sub-brands, or try to figure out how social media is impacting a new product launch from Burberry’s beauty line.

Of course, startups abhor a vacuum just as much as nature does. There are plenty of new companies offering to drive engagement and increase your sales. Some of them do so through gamification mechanics, which are interesting, but have yet to prove in any meaningful way that leader boards or virtual badges lead to purchases.  Others are offering rich analytics, which are very important inputs in this world of data, but they fall short on making those analytics actionable. In my view, the long-term winners in this space will be startups with platforms that help brands increase engagement and transform it into sales in a measurable way. (I am an investor in one of them, CrowdTwist).

As such, the next time a startup tells your company it can increase its online engagement, , it is important to understand what it can deliver. Start by considering the following: 

1. Distribution. How does the company help you manage your distributed brand? Can they track and incentivize your audience across Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and everywhere else?

2. How is engagement defined? If the company is supposed to help increase engagement, how is engagement being defined? Is that definition aligned with your own views, and with your business goals? Engagement can be measured by metrics as disparate as page views, unique visitors, time on site, and referrals, for starters. So it’s incredibly important to make sure your definition of engagement, and that of your provider, is aligned with your business goals.

3. Your own time. What kind of effort do you as the client have to put in to make this undertaking a success?

4. Integration. Can the platform help you unify the different online personas of your audience, your prospective customers, and your existing customers? To really communicate effectively with an audience, you need to know that @rudina11 on twitter is the same person as Rudina Seseri on facebook and rseseri on foursquare. Many platforms for driving engagement are unable to connect them, and will actually consider @rudina11, Rudina Seseri and rseseri as three different people.

5. Conversion rates. How will your conversion rates from unique visitor to registered user across the various channels improve? By how much? How will your conversion rates from unique visitor to purchaser improve?

Ultimately, the lift in sales needs to justify the cost of using whatever social media platform you choose. There will continue to be plenty of new channels for reaching customers, but successful businesses will still be measured in the dollars they generate.

Note: Fairhaven Capital has invested in Springpad and CrowdTwist; the author serves on the Board of Directors of CrowdTwist.