“This is the year social media reaches the ‘C’ level,” was one of the predictions we read coming into 2011. This was supposed to be the year social media made the leap from the intern’s cubicle to the boardroom. Which means this was also the year to start talking seriously with the CFO about spending money on social media. And, consequently, to justify the expense.

What’s a good conversation about your organization worth? That’s the question asked by Robert Herzog, chief financial officer at Harrison College, in his post entitled “Why Your CFO Must Know PR & Social Media” at Social Media Today. Herzog–obviously an enlightened CFO himself–says the answer depends on your organization and what you’re trying to accomplish. And he rightly asserts that, no matter what your aim, “you need to contextualize your goals to the specific time in your organization’s life cycle.”

He’s also right when he notes that the biggest question about social media from the corporate suite is often, “Is this helping us make any money?” It’s a fair question, and one that’s not always easy to answer. Conversation about your company or your product or your people can seem to be a pretty nebulous thing to measure against financial goals.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible; and, in fact, it’s quite a bit easier and less expensive to measure the impact of social media and Internet initiatives than any other aspects of your marketing program. It’s easy to track where people go on the web, and to archive what they say. It’s easy to see how many of them register online for classes or events, how many download your white paper, how many sign up for your e-newsletter or request more information.

Still, the idea of “conversation” and what it’s worth seems a little airy-fairy. People will talk. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll actually do anything. And there’s no way to control the conversation–so even if you participate there’s no guarantee you can bring the chatter around to meet your ends.

Actually, I think it’s time to redefine what we mean by “conversation” on the Internet.

Conversation with individuals is great, and social media make it possible to converse directly with your customers and prospects and fans–and your competitors and your enemies and people who’ve never heard of you. Conversation via social media can help you gain insights, provide great customer service, and offer clarity to people looking for answers.

But most people you reach via social media never join the conversation. They don’t comment on your Facebook posts. They don’t comment on your blog. They don’t retweet your tweets.

But that doesn’t mean they’re uninterested. It just means they’re not talking.

When it comes to social media, most people are lurkers. Ever wonder why you see the same fifteen friends posting on Facebook every day? It’s because most of your Facebook friends rarely, if ever, post anything. It’s still true that about ten percent of people on the Internet are responsible for all of the content.

You should probably be one of these people.

For businesses and other organizations, the social media conversation between you and individual people is less important than the broader cultural conversation you’re participating in when you show up on Facebook. Social media allow you to say your piece–and to listen to what others are saying, not only about you, but also about the world in general. What are people talking about? What do they care about? How do you connect with that? Social media give you the power to eavesdrop on their conversations.

We believe that not participating in social media today can be extremely expensive in terms of lost influence and insight. You can’t control the conversation, but you can have your say and help shape it. Even more important, you can apply what you hear to make your company and your product more valuable to your customers.

Do social media help you make money? Do business cards? Logos? Market research? Today, social media are part of the landscape and language of doing business. The cost of entry is very low. The potential return is great. If you haven’t already, now’s the time to have that conversation with your CFO.