The value of social media lies not in what your brand in saying, but in what other people are saying about your brand

No one really cares about your brand’s last status update. Your followers probably didn’t read your Tweet.

At least, they weren’t that bothered until one of their friends ‘liked’ your status update and it appeared in their newsfeed. Or retweeted it and sent it to their own followers’ streams. In other words, what you have to say about your brand is often more valuable coming from someone else than from you.

Mark Zuckerberg was quoted this week as saying that a trusted referral is the ‘holy grail’ of advertising.  It comes in the wake of a $10m settlement for a lawsuit against Facebook’s right to feature user’s names to endorse a brand you may have once liked or shared.

Despite a vociferous privacy backlash, these ‘sponsored stories’ are up to three times more effective than a standard Facebook ad, according to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Once, word-of-mouth meant a casual mention over a coffee or an impassioned blog post. These days it’s an inadvertent affiliation of a name with a brand – achieved via a simple click of a ‘like’ button, a comment, or a re-Tweet.

As the Facebook settlement has shown, social media users have proved that they can’t be duped into having their name exploited for commercial purposes. They want – and deserve – the right to control how their name is used.

So, how do you get people naturally talking about your brand and sharing on your behalf?

It’s all about content. If you’re posting about a great offer or something funny that happened at your office summer party, chances are you’re not going to get much engagement from fans. Nor is social media a sales channel purely for pushing products.

Instead, find and create content that your audience will find interesting, novel or funny (depending on your brand’s values) and are therefore more like to share. Innocent Drinks is a pro at this, posting frivolous and occasionally outlandish content that is novel enough to disrupt the banality of their fans’ newsfeeds. (Recently they ran a sequence of comic-book style posts in which the next frame of a story was determined by comments on the previous. Fans were even working Innocent products into their answers.) It works, because that’s who Innocent is: frivolous and occasionally outlandish.

Social media 101 presumes you already know what people are saying about your brand from a customer service perspective. But to gain your audience’s trust and to make them more likely to talk about your brand in general, you need to know what they’re saying about everything else. What does your audience like? What are they doing when they’re not ‘liking’ your status update? Join conversations that people are already having.

This does not mean you should jump on every bandwagon and start hijacking hashtags. Be selective, be appropriate. If you’re in travel, are you watching and commenting throughout the right travel shows? If you have an affiliation with sport, are you Tweeting throughout a game?

Social media, like friendship, is a two-way deal. Half a social media manager’s job is listening: your home feed is one of your most important tools. And if people feel like you get them, they will vocalise that.

Another way to encourage people to share is to start conversations that people want to be involved in. Create conversations that people want to contribute to and it’s likely that their friends want to join in too. Ask questions, elicit opinions.

‘How is everybody doing today?’ is not a conversation starter. ‘Marmite crepes?’ is.

Not only is this a great way to build your brand’s visibility, but it’s also a tool to get to know your audience. Never before have marketers had such an open forum of opinions and questions. Take advantage of this; you’ll get more honest answers than any focus group. And you don’t even need to provide sandwiches.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that your audience is likely to be more socially savvy than you are – they have the power to control conversations and express their thoughts – good and bad – to an unquantifiable crowd. And they have a secret weapon – they’re probably in bed with your competitors too.

In this sense, you need to exercise respect. Social media has changed the brand-customer dynamic: remember, they’re no longer your customers. They’re your friends.

Lauren Rayner recently joined Flight Centre as Social Media Specialist from a background in advertising. Follow Lauren on Twitter.