When social media first arrived on the scene it was treated by many brands as a broadcast channel, a way of shouting about products and services to a passive audience. But it soon became clear that ‘old world’ approach didn’t work in a channel that encourages two-way conversations. Quickly there was a power shift between consumers and brands, who had to put away their megaphones and start to engage. People said they wanted authentic relationships they could contribute to. Social media, as it soon became clear, is about trust, authenticity and peer-to-peer conversations. It’s about community and shared experiences.

Marketing has always been difficult, but the new medium is forcing us to become better marketers; to think more about messaging, to be truer, helpful and relevant. Folks who do it well benefit greatly but those who fight it and lead with their products inevitably experience difficulties. Social media used to be a numbers game. Brands with the biggest followings were considered top dogs. Now it is a game of relevance. One hundred people talking about your business is incredibly powerful, much better than any number of unengaged followers.

Choose your community wisely

To develop a valuable community, first it’s important to understand each specific social media platform. LinkedIn’s aim is to connect the world with economic opportunity, and it builds a community of professionals in one place. They connect, share information and get inspired; they can even advance their careers by building a full profile exhibiting all of their skills and achievements and showcasing them to the right employers.

The brands seen to be doing well are those that create strong communities and build followers to their company pages; a home from which they can share thought-leadership pieces. They tend to have a nice balance of organic reach and paid advertising. Sticking only with organic tends to limit marketers to their immediate audience. For smaller businesses it’s important to experiment with different social media and work out one or two that work best for your business. This avoids overstretch and gives you the time you need to nurture and develop a community. You can’t be everywhere on limited resources.

What’s the business case?

One stand-out example of the power of social media was “The Dress”, which went viral in February 2015. It was a simple picture of a dress with the question – is it black and blue or gold and white? The test played on people’s colour perception and such were the disagreements that the picture went global. Outwardly, to have such reach with such a simple and low cost piece of content is a marketer’s dream come true. But a word of warning: the dress image had no business or commercial message, so brands hoping to replicate its success must work out a way of deriving value from the millions of eyeballs.

Much better examples of a productive message include WWF’s campaign to protect endangered species with the hashtag #LastSelfie and a close up shot of a panda, polar bear and tiger. The campaign was very shareable and it resonated with its target audience of young people. A very recent example of explosive social media coverage is Pokémon Go, a game which spread via social channels and which has become so popular it added many billions of dollars to parent brand Nintendo’s share price, almost overnight. However, when it later turned out that Nintendo didn’t have anything to do with the game, their stock took a tumble.

Personal, shareable and mobile

Focus on one or two channels, create content that is personal, mobile-optimised and shareable, and above all be consistent – once you get going your community will expect regular engagement. If not, they will simply leave.

Pictures are an important aspect of content generation. The visual is the new headline. In an environment where you only have second to catch the audience’s attention, a good picture will attract more click-throughs than a boring one. So try and steer clear of standard stock images and spend time picking one that jumps out at users as they caste their eyes over it. If you are thinking about posting in existing communities, for example the many large LinkedIn Groups, then make sure you are not spamming. People appreciate appropriate, helpful posts; so look for questions you can answer or conversations into which you can inject some value. You can find the best conversations using existing online tools. Keyword research and social media listening tools will help you find relevant chatter. This is legwork and a time commitment upfront but it will pay dividends later on.

Most importantly, remember the golden rule: social media is a two-way street, so listen to what people are telling you and engage them as individuals. The megaphone approach doesn’t work here, so put it down and start talking.