Co-written by Kate Myers of NPR and Libby Peterek of KLRU.

It begins with a tweet or a status update on Facebook. Before you know it, you’re posting behind-the-scenes photos from your office on Instagram. Soon you’ve curated those photos into a board on Pinterest, or you’re recording a podcast and posting it on SoundCloud. Maybe you’re even re-blogging GIFs on Tumblr or meeting some of your fans through a Google+ hangout.

Then you look up from your computer at the clock on your office wall. You’re shocked to find that 8 or 10 or 12 hours has passed. You’ve barely started exploring all the ways to engage with your audience online.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re probably not alone. While there are a multitude of opportunities to engage with audiences online, there are still only 24 hours in a day. You can easily find yourself stretched too thin when you’re trying to manage accounts on several social networks.

So how can you determine where to best spend your limited time and resources? Here are 10 questions you should ask yourself before you create your next social-networking account. Your answers can help you decide if jumping on the network hyped as “the next Facebook” is worth your effort.

1. Is your audience there?

One of the best reasons to invest time in a social network is because your audience is already there. Check your web analytics for referral sources — are you getting traffic from social sources you aren’t actively curating? Look at those sites and see if there is a place or a culture for you to promote your great content, or engage with the people who are already sharing your content. The culture of a site is important:

Reddit, for instance, drives a great amount of traffic to different sources, but has a strong community culture against self-promotion. Google+ is the opposite, with Google offering opportunities to engage around specific topic areas.

2. Does the network solve a unique problem for your audience?

Users tend to join social networks that make their lives easier or solve problems not addressed by other platforms. Pinterest provided an easier way for shoppers to discover unique products recommended by their friends, and it now has more than 20 million users. New social networks that offer the same services as existing networks can struggle to attract an audience and may not be worth your effort.

3. Will it make it easier for your audience to share your cool content?

We exist in the Information Age, a time when unprecedented amounts of data are being peddled to us at an astounding rate. We receive more communication in a day than our brains can process. Getting attention for your content in that environment can be difficult. It starts with making sure we access our users where they play and that we’re giving them every opportunity to share what they think is “cool” with their networks. We want to make sure they have the chance to use our content in a “pro tip” they give to their friends. That tip can carry content far: Consider that, according to Pew, “more than 67% of online (American) adults say they use Facebook.” (See more info in the chart below.) Tapping into that network with Open Graph commenting on your schedule, episode, blog, and production pages allows you to place your social media within the context of your content as well as reach your current audience and theirs.

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4. How much effort is required to be successful?

Some networks require a large amount of investment to be successful. Creating a new Facebook page from scratch requires a lot of time investment in order to have it show dividends when it comes to referring traffic. You may be able to have more success on other platforms with a slower flow of content. Instagram, for instance, easily publishes to other platforms and the level of effort for maintaining a feed is low, since you can post to it every day or every few days. You can realize success with Twitter through concentrated bursts of activity. There are also free and freemium tools like Hootsuite, DLVR.IT, Buffer, Tweetdeck, Twitterfeed and Commun.It and paid tools such as SocialFlow, Shoutlet, Sprout Social and Adobe Social to help ease your workflow. Reach out to your audience — let them know you are a live human being updating your channels. Also, remember to water the plants. As you make connections, make sure to revisit your investments often enough to keep them fresh and not looking abandoned, even if you cannot live on them all day every day.

5. Will it help you reach new audiences?

Do some research both on the demographic composition of the network and how people are using it. Does your research align with your content and goals? Pinterest is the hot network about town. Let’s say you have a gardening show. You know there is a lot of interest in gardening in your community, but you aren’t gaining a foothold in the social sphere. You realize that people are pinning all sorts of DIY tips, including the garden variety and even a few from your show! Now is the perfect time to jump in and harness the momentum that grew organically and introduce your show to a new audience.

Pew has a great demographic breakdown for the top five sites in 2012.

6. Is it the best tool for reaching your goals?

In all of our newsrooms, our attention is the most limited resource. To decide where best to invest that attention, we should spend a touch of time deciding what our goals are. If the goal is driving traffic, make sure that you expend effort to build up your audience and following, and pay attention to what content plays best with them. Remember to track your campaigns via your analytics tools. Google+ is a good place to invest for driving traffic, Instagram, for instance, is not. If your goal is influencing the conversation or making a name for your station, take a look at places you can be a big fish in a little pond. As large as Twitter is, curating the people that you engage with based on your station’s beat or local area can really help you stand out in the crowd. If your goal is sourcing new stories, then having your reporters become active Redditors and investing Twitter lists and monitoring can help you move more quickly than others in your market.

7. How do you measure success?

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Since social networks depend on social use, it’s more difficult to predict their trajectory than a typical technological tool. This being said, you can predict trends by watching your users’ interactions as well as innovations made by the social networks themselves. In the beginning, the Facebook “like” was the long-held standard for success. We also hoped that it would lead to conversions, but as the number and kind of users has evolved, we have to evolve with it. Now we strive for engagement and conversation. It may be measured through social media dashboards on Google Analytics, watching your brand spread on Bottlenose or by visiting your Facebook Comment Moderation Tool periodically. There are many ways to measure; it’s important to set your goals and strategy first, then set intervals for checking growth and response.

8. Do you have buy-in from management?

It’s tough to find the time to post on a new social network when your supervisor is constantly giving you other assignments. You’ll need him or her to ensure that your schedule gives you the freedom to be successful. If your supervisor is excited about the potential of a new social network, he or she also might be able to get you additional resources — staff or money — that can help you reach your goals. You can get buy-in from management by reviewing these 10 questions with them or by giving them an elevator pitch that focuses on the exciting opportunities presented by new social networks.

9. Can you describe your success to your colleagues?

Your co-workers can be your best asset when it comes to growing your presence on a social network. If you can get them excited about the network’s potential and importance, they’ll also sign up and share information about your profile and content. Be sure you can clearly explain to your staff why you’ve joined that network and how it is benefiting your organization. Also know how to concisely share your successes with them in emails.

10. Will you know when and how to cut and run?

Failure happens. If you can’t accept that, or you don’t know what failure looks like, you can find yourself wasting time with social networks that will never help you meet your goals. You should have an exit strategy and be ready to close or suspend your account if it looks like you’re not generating results. It’s also a good idea to review your social media every 90 days to ensure you’re making progress towards your goals and not just spinning your wheels.

To hear a panel discussion on this topic from the 2013 Integrated Media Association conference, click play below.

Ian Hill is responsible for social media, outreach and engagement around news content at KQED in San Francisco. He was a reporter at a commercial newspaper for 15 years before coming to public media.

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