I was talking to a group of friends the other day about social media and some of the digital marketing work that they do at their companies. And as we got to talking about how our respective firms think and approach social media, we got into a heated discussion about having structure within a social media plan.

Now it may seem like a paradox that in a medium that is highly reactive and subject to the whims of everyone using the platform that anything could actually be “planned.” And to be fair, there are many times in social media where you need to move fast to get in on a topic or react to a customer complaint, and those aren’t the types of events that allow for a great deal of forethought.

However, as much as social media is about listening and observing, it’s also focused on driving opinion and trends—getting out in front of a topic and setting the tone; leading the market and your competitors; and owning a subject by being the thought leader. And it’s here that forethought and planning signify the difference between those that are reaping the benefits of a social strategy and those that wonder why no one really cares what they are saying.

Just as companies set up their editorial calendars in days of yore based on what the key publications were going to talk about in a given month, so too can a planned out and thought-out social media calendar help drive awareness and positive perception of you and your organization in the marketplace.

Say you’re in the IT retail industry, and you’re trying to establish your company (or yourself) as a leader in customer insights and analytics, a very hot topic in that industry today. While you can follow and monitor the leading retail analysts, retailers, and manufacturers to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s interesting to your audience, savvy social marketers are finding ways to not only insert themselves into the discussion, but start to lead it as well.

And they’re doing it by thinking of social media in terms of a campaign. There’s the “awareness” phase, where they use their credibility to lend some gravity to a topic, say by raising issues with data integrity in analytics and asking questions that require an answer. Then there’s the “interest” phase, where they can point to some thought leadership or expertise they’ve garnered that will lead people to click through the Twitter feed to the website and to the white paper they and an independent third party have co-authored on the importance of analytics to customer insight; third, the “consideration” phase, where the thought leadership is tied into the campaign offer, trial, or incentive, like a free online diagnosis or the offer to chat with a consultant; and finally the “purchase” phase, where prospects can be closed and turned into customers.

This process doesn’t happen by accident, and believe me, it takes time—you can’t do the above paragraph by accident, and you can’t do it in a day.

It’s understood by most marketers that having a social media strategy doesn’t equate to setting up a Facebook pages and a Twitter account. To drive opinion, results, and influence, companies are rapidly seeing that “social” a deliberate process that demands your time, attention, and creativity to drive demonstrable results.