Years ago I worked for a small educational publishing company. As I sat down to begin work on what would ultimately be the first of my two complete overhauls of the company’s website, I remarked to a colleague that this first website looked like ‘creating a website’ had been an item on a to-do list — that they’d simply created an online business card, checked it off their list, and moved on. That’s not an indictment as much as it was the way of Web 1.0. Many simply felt they needed to plant a flag on this internet thing and then get back to the real work. Most marketers have seen the error of their ways and have upgraded their website several times as they strive toward a dynamic Web 2.0 experience. Though now there is a different item appearing on those checklists.

In this age of social media, more and more marketers regardless of their understanding of these new channels want “on that Facebook thing” in much the same way that the checklist marketers of the early ’90s wanted “a website on those interwebs.”

Recently I heard some words of wisdom — ironically, at a marketing best practices conference. “Why do we come to these conferences, learn what everyone else is doing, and then go home and copy them. Why do we follow, when we should lead.”

So how does this apply to you and wanting a piece of the social media action? Simply put, all of these new channels — Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube (to pick a few low-hanging fruits) — are more than just items on a checklist. Want a Facebook page? It can be created in 10 minutes. Same with creating profiles or accounts on all of those other sites. If you want to be a follower, the good news is that it doesn’t take long to establish a simple presence on these channels. You can probably spend the better part of a day creating accounts on all prevalent networks and community sites and cross a BIG item off of that beloved checklist.

But what if you want to lead? What if you want these channels to actually work for you?

Then you are ready to realize a simple truth — social media is a means not an end. Creating presences on these channels is not the item on your checklist but rather a means for accomplishing an even bigger item on your checklist — developing greater brand engagement with your customers and potential customers. Checklists aren’t bad by nature (I use a ton of them to keep several different things straight). Often it’s what’s on them that’s wrong.

Using ‘greater brand engagement’ as your goal, how can you use social media as a means to help you achieve that? Which social channels would best support these goals? Too often marketers grab all of these sites off the rack regardless of how well they support their business’ goal. Maybe a photo-sharing presence on Flickr would be better than a blog for your business. Maybe Facebook isn’t right for you. In order to answer these questions you first need to know what you are doing.

We are currently working on a project for a client that I cannot wait to share with you that does all of these things. We have a branding/messaging goal for the client and are building the means for accomplishing this through social media. More on this when we can share it but leading produces a greater sense of satisfaction than following.

In the meantime, ask yourself if you have a social media strategy or just a checklist? Are following or leading?