Quantifying social media is certainly a challenge, but not impossible! There are hundreds of low-cost (and even free!) social media measuring tools that can help illustrate the impact of your business's social campaigns.

With 88 percent of U.S. businesses expecting to increase social media spending this year, there’s one question that seems to be on every marketer’s mind: How do we prove social media ROI? Even senior marketing vets seem to be miffed by the social media question.

Marketing professionals are spending at least 6 hours or more on social media marketing each week, and yet more than 70 percent of those marketers indicate a need to further understand the effectiveness of the same social networks in which they are so heavily invested. How can we measure the impact of our social media efforts?

Social media is the new online frontier. It’s tough to determine your Tweets’ worth when @mentions and retweets seem to travel untracked in uncharted social territory. Starbucks has almost 1.5 million followers, but how many of those followers actually saw their latest Tweet? How many people clicked on the tweeted link? Most importantly, how many Twitter users, either directly or indirectly, bought a coffee because of that Tweet? Starbucks' Twitter followers are high in number.

The key to answering these questions lies in establishing accurate social engagement measurement for your social campaigns. First, identify what social media metrics are most important to you and your business. Evaluate your goals for social media and what you hope to gain.

Then, determine how you’ll quantify and monitor your progress in reaching these objectives. If you’re an entrepreneur launching a tech start up, your primary interest may be fostering brand awareness and increased notoriety. (Brafton has reported that social media marketing is proven to boost brand exposure.) In social media, evaluating this goal translates into measuring fan and follower growth, the number of social mentions and the rate of social interaction.

If you’re an ecommerce business owner, you might be most concerned with customer loyalty and conversion rates – other frequently cited benefits of social marketing. In the social space, you can guage these results by measuring click-through rate, follower and fan retention rate and effectiveness of social promotional participation.

Yes, quantifying social media is certainly a challenge, but it’s not impossible! There are hundreds of low-cost (and even free!) social media measurement tools that can help illustrate the impact of your business’ social campaigns. With new social media monitoring tools debuting on the web every day, finding the perfect fit for your social measurement needs and budget restrictions can be quite the task. Luckily, we’ve already done the leg work for you! Keeping wallet-friendly, free options in mind, here are our top picks for social media analytics:

Klout

For a quick and easy evaluation of your Twitter influence, look no further than Klout. After typing in your Twitter handle, Klout analyzes your overall Twitter impact by calculating the “true reach” and social influence of your tweets, including your brand’s most influential topics and percentage of actively engaged followers. Klout measures your social authority based on two main factors:

1. Amplification – A calculation of your total retweets, mentions, unique retweets and inbound message ratio meant to derive the likelihood a user will act on your content.

2. True Reach – Aggregates your total number of followers, mutual follows, percentage of follower mentions and percentage of follower retweets. Klout

How to best leverage this free tool:

• Compare your Klout score to industry competitors. This application provides the Klout score for any Twitter handle. Size up the competition and identify your particular Twitter strengths and weaknesses.

• Increase social interaction by identifying your most influential followers. Klout allows you to organize your followers by topic expertise and interest. Use this information as a social content creation guide to drive further social engagement.

Peer Index

As suggested by the name, Peer Index provides valuable insight as to how your overall social presence ranks among industry peers. Similar to Klout in its attempt to quantify social engagement, Peer Index measures social influence in specific, self-selected topic areas based on the following 3 factors:

1. Authority – Assigns a comparative influence score based on how your selected industry peer group responds and interacts with your social contributions by topic. Peer Index

2. Activity – A measure of your Tweet tendencies categorized by subject.

3. Audience – Peer Index measures the total size of your audience in comparison to how many are active users responding to your content.

How to best leverage this free tool:

• While the algorithm that determines each of Peer Index’s influence measurement seems admittedly vague, this is still an excellent tool for understanding the dynamics of your industry across social media. As Peer Index monitors Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, this application provides valuable analysis of social tendencies within your industry. Pay close attention to activity scores in particular.

• Compare your level of interaction and messaging to peers to evaluate your company’s level of engagement. Are you not contributing enough to the conversation or are you inundating your audience with constant social updates? While tweeting 22 times a day to an audience of legal professionals may be perceived as excessive, this level of communication might be just right for fans of a lifestyle brand. Peer Index can help you find that happy medium.

Formulists

Having trouble keeping track of your legions of Twitter followers? First off, congrats on joining the Twitter in-crowd! Now comes the hard part of organizing and effectively keeping tabs on your follower activity and movement. Luckily, Formulists provides several automated list functions to help you fully categorize and track your growing follower base.

How to best leverage this free tool:

• Remember that hypothetical ecommerce business owner trying to boost brand awareness? With Formulists he can quantify his follower retention rate and customer loyalty success rate. Formulists allows you to create a self-updating private list that will track all users who unfollow your Twitter handle. Formulists

• Use the “TweepShuffle” feature to organize your followers by top location and bio keyword tags. Grouping your followers by location and keyword will help you hone in on the buzzworthy topics for each niche and identify where you can contribute to the conversation.

• Track your most chatty followers. Create a self-updating list of users who have interacted with your profile the most. Fostering your relationships with your most socially savvy and active followers is your best asset in creating social brand ambassadors and inherently increasing online visibility.

TweetReach

Think of this as a version of Facebook Insights for Twitter. TweetReach allows you to analyze how “far” your Tweet has traveled in the Twitterverse based on your Tweet’s total exposure and number of user impressions. TweetReach takes social engagement one step further by calculating the potential for your Tweet to be seen, rather than just tracking a raw number of mentions and retweets. TweetReach

How to best leverage this free tool:

• As TweetReach displays your top impression contributors, this tool identifies who you should be targeting to fully maximize your potential visibility.

• Search keywords or hashtags to see what Twitter handles are driving the buzz of trending topics.

SocialMention

SocialMention is the ultimate, free social buzz monitoring tool. Like TweetReach, SocialMention can be set to track mentions of your brand, keywords or hashtags while ranking top contributors. However, SocialMention takes buzz analysis one step further by allowing you to track mentions of your brand across Twitter, Facebook, blogs and forums in real time.

How to best leverage this free tool:

• Understand how your brand is perceived online. In addition to the added convenience of email notifications, SocialMention will measure the social media sentiment associated with your designated brand or keyword search. This tool measures the ratio of positive, neutral and negative mentions of your search topic, which is incredibly valuable in not only monitoring the conversation surrounding your brand, but also learning how to control and influence the social buzz about your business. Get firsthand accounts of what your potential customers like and don’t like straight from the horse’s mouth! SocialMention

• Learn where your buzz contributors are chatting about your business. SocialMention provides an overview of the networks in which your brand is mentioned the most. If you’ve never been on Stumbleupon before, but notice it’s the second-leading source of social mentions, it’s time to jump in and interact with users specifically interested in your business’ content.

Post Rank Analytics

If you’re willing to register your blog or website with Post Rank Connect, Post Rank provides a free account to track your online social engagement across several social networks and blogs, including Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz, Delicious and more. Post Rank focuses on evaluating how your featured content performs as a whole across the web, rather than just focusing on keywords.

How to best leverage this free tool:

• Discover the full reach of your social media content. While TweetReach displays information about a tweet’s total influence within Twitter, Post Rank can track how your posts may have populated to third-party social bookmarking sites or how content from your website is generating social mentions. Post Rank allows you to get a feel for what content sparks increased social media engagement amongst your target audience. This is invaluable insight in creating viral content for social media. PostRank

• One of the best Post Rank features is its ability to ingrate with your Google Analytics. This facilitates the process of relating social actions to on-site calls-to-action.

Now, that you have all of these free resources at your fingertips, get to measuring! Monitoring social media ROI is cited as a top marketing priority this year, and these tools will help. Not only do these resources illustrate your social media ROI, but they can also increase your social marketing efficiency by highlighting the networks and influencers most likely to translate into leads or act as brand advocates for your business. I think you’ll find your social media time and dollars are well spent.

Lauren is a former Social Media Marketing Executive on the Brafton Social Media Team. When she's not on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, or experimenting on just about any other social network, Lauren loves to go running and work on her amateur snowboarding skills.