Never, ever in the history of advertising has it been so easy to reach so many people by spending so little. You already know the reason why: Social media has completely transformed the way people communicate, and at the same time it’s completely changed the way brands communicate to them. It’s always surprising to us that so many people whose job it is to sell products or services still don’t understand the fundamental nature of that transformation: They see social as another medium, rather than a completely different method.

That’s a big mistake. Never, ever in the history of advertising has it been so easy to reach so many people in the wrong way—by thinking of social as an extension of traditional media, or by communicating the same way on social platforms as you do through broadcast, web, or print. In the simplest of terms, the wrong approach consists of talking to customers rather than talking with them. The first is the language of traditional media; the second is the language of social media—the human language.

As we see it, social media is rooted in two main attributes: sharing and relationship. It’s the first of these that creates the second. By sharing, people—and brands—let others know who they are and what they stand for. They expose their ideas, values, and unique characteristics to others. It’s a subtle way of asking for acceptance. And just as in real life – when you make a friend, make a new business connection, ask for a date – acceptance is more likely when the other person feels like they know you, understand you and can connect with you.

Of course, social media isn’t a replacement for traditional advertising and marketing. Traditional marketing methods are great for delivering information, and before people buy your product or service you’ll definitely have to let them know who you are and what it is. Social isn’t the arena for that. Social is the space where you let people become your brand’s friend. When it’s handled properly, it’s the perfect complement for traditional advertising and marketing methods.

While traditional media is great for selling products, social media is good for selling only one thing: Yourself. That is, convincing your network of your credibility, your coolness, your entertainment value, your fun factor – what it is about your brand that makes it unique, valuable, and appealing. The products sell as a side effect of your success in “selling yourself” well enough to create a genuine relationship with your customers.

When you’ve built that relationship, people buy your products not just for what they are, but for what they stand for. People buy as a natural part of their relationship with you, and because they have come to see your brand as tied to their own values. The most successful brands are able to balance traditional marketing with social interaction, interweaving the two to create incredibly rich—and long lasting—customer relationships.

  • Duluth Wearables makes high-quality outdoor and work clothes for big men. Through a clever illustrated stick figure campaign, they demonstrate their products’ use in a multitude of possible settings, letting customers picture themselves in those settings and in those clothes. Well-managed social interaction solidifies that vision, enabling customers to see Duluth Wearables’ products as natural extensions of their own identities.
  • Subaru’s traditional and social messaging focuses on shared values of family and quality that the brand and its customers have in common. A TV and print campaign showing Subaru cars as central parts of family life—a family dog’s transition from puppyhood to full adulthood; a father passing his old car onto his son—is supported by a consistent family-centered social dialogue with customers.
  • PGN’s successful client Green Lantern Pizza has woven it’s founding family’s patriarch in as a visual presence in its website and other marketing materials, and leveraged its social presence to share his story. It’s a theme that resonates with customers’ own family relationships, and which creates a sense of comfort and familiarity—as well as incredible brand loyalty.

It will take time for many businesses to change their thinking to understand social media and to fully appreciate its value. For more than a century, brands have established themselves by creating commanding, attention-grabbing presences through one-way broadcast and print media. The social space is the arena for dialogue, and where brands need to actively listen—and engage in conversation, rather than a monologue. When they do, that’s where customers come to know, relate to, and sometimes even love a brand’s essence—and where they stand to become customers for life.