You can waste a huge amount of time having conversations in social media, just as you can waste a huge amount of time having any sort of conversation. This isn’t to say you should not be using social media to have conversations – but simply having or creating conversations is not a sufficient objective (as is the case with the similarly vague concept of ‘creating engagement’).
Now while it is good to see that businesses are starting to understand the benefit of using social media as a way of listening and responding to the customers (see this recent article in the Guardian), moving away from seeing spaces such as a Facebook page as an opportunity for ‘Brandfill’ (love that concept from Paul Armstrong), the simple act of having, or joining conversations, cannot be seen as an end in itself. As a business, the time you need to invest in having conversations is precious: it can only be done by capable people, not by machines or mass-produced content. Therefore you need to be highly selective about what conversations you decide to join and what you want to get out of such conversations.
Social media (like any form of conversation) is a low reach, but high engagement activity. If you are going to do it, the value you create from each contact has to be an order of magnitude greater that the value we are accustomed to generate through conventional, impression-based, audience marketing. I would suggest (see chapter 3 of my recent ebook) this means that the only basis for conversation is with what I call the Gang of Ten – i.e. the ten people who identify themselves by the fact that, right now, they are either complaining about you, praising you or asking a question for which your organisation provides an answer.
Any other sorts of conversations are either a waste of time, or could be counter-productive if the desire to see conversation as a commodity (much like we erroneously measure and value ‘engagement’) encourages organisations to insert themselves within conversations where they do not have permission to enter or have little or real value to contribute, or expend effort creating conversations which no-one really wants to join.