Of all the digital marketing options out there, social media remains one of the most mysterious for small business owners. Most aren’t sure where to start, how to gain followers, or even the differences among social posting, boosting and advertising.

…which is kind of ironic, isn’t it? Unlike display ads, search engine optimization, website development, and search engine marketing (as well as the many other digital marketing tactics), social media was actually designed to be intuitive and user-friendly for all ages. It was meant to be easy to use.

So if it’s meant to be so easy to use, why isn’t it simple to advertise your small business via social media? Spoiler alert: That’s the word. Advertise. If your social media strategy revolves entirely around using the channels to advertise your business, you will fail.

For most consumers, social media was never about business or marketing. It started as a way to connect with friends, family and even colleagues on a deeper level. So when social media marketing became an option, businesses were essentially the unwelcome guest at the party.

Why “Advertise” Can Be a Dirty Word on Social

It takes time, effort and care to build a successful social media strategy. Yours should be as well-rounded as possible, ensuring you consider your target audience and exactly what you want to achieve on each and every social platform.

Once you have a good understanding of your audience and put some goals in place, it can be hard to resist creating posts that target a quick sell and pushing them out on every channel you can think of. Can you say, “tunnel vision”? That’s just not how social media works.

The word to replace it with? Engagement.

Where social media hates advertisements, it adores engagement. Why? Advertisements are one-sided. Engaging, two-way conversations invite social media users into your world and help them get to know your business. Then, and only then, can successful marketers establish the relationships necessary to open the door for an eventual sale.

Making the Transition

If your social strategy has been stuck in a cycle of pushy sales messaging, it’s not too late to pivot. Once you revise your strategy, consider even automating your social media. Here’s what social media automation can do for your business.

But first, baby steps. Here are some tried and true ways to make your business’ social media activity more engaging.

Be a resource first, a brand second.

84% of consumers say they either completely or somewhat trust recommendations from family, colleagues, and friends about products – making these recommendations the information source ranked highest for trustworthiness. – Nielsen

In 2016, Facebook rolled out a new recommendation tool that helps its users discover new businesses based on their friends’ input. Why? They noticed people are straying from typical online search engines when looking for help locally. Instead, they rely on friends and family for information they deem more trustworthy. And they ask for advice where the largest majority of these friends and family are actively communicating with one another – on Facebook.

What makes someone likely to recommend your business over another via social media? Definitely not an advertisement stuffed chock-full of selling pleas. Consumers are much more likely to share helpful content with their network. So if your business is seen more as a resource and less as a salesperson, you’re much more likely to get noticed and gain traction.

A perfect example: The neighborhood I live in has a Facebook page where neighbors get to know one another and frequently ask for local recommendations on restaurants, contractors and other businesses. One of my neighbors recently asked for advice on taming the weeds in her front yard. Many replied with their own DIY solutions, but another neighbor actually replied by sharing a post from a local landscaper with the exact weed-squashing guidance requested. Without trying to sell anything upfront, this landscaping business instantly expanded its audience and increased its perceived trustworthiness, simply by acting as a resource rather than an advertiser.

Be human, and speak your audience’s language.

Businesses big and small are in constant competition for the latest viral catchphrases and slogans, often changing these on a whim in an attempt to get the most attention possible. The problem with integrating such marketing-speak into your social media posts is that it makes them immediately identifiable within the social feed. “Yuck, another ad!”

As social media consumers scroll through their feeds, they see posts from friends and family that are relatable and that use everyday, familiar language. When a super marketing-y message pops up amidst these more casual posts, it can stick out like a sore thumb, immediately damaging a business’s credibility.

Think long and hard about your target audience. Where are they from? How old are they, on average? What are their interests? What are their values? Use this information to guide how you write for them. Choose words that fit what they’re used to seeing from friends and family, and try to relate on a human level, not a business level.

Interact consistently and frequently.

Like text and email marketing, consistency is crucial. Once you send that first message, you set an expectation that there will be additional communication going forward. If you can’t keep up with posts such that they make up a more comprehensive campaign, you need to find another solution entirely, or outsource your social marketing to someone who can help. Inconsistent communications feel like broken promises.

As important as it is to communicate consistently, interacting and responding to the folks engaging with your posts is just as essential. Social media encourages two-way conversations, so when consumers comment on posts, they very often expect a reply. Wondering, “How do I get social conversations started?” We’ve got you covered.

Then, and only then, ask for their business.

Stop. Before you decide you’ve been friendly and engaging enough and are ready to incorporate some selling messaging, let’s recap. When it comes to social media, avoid developing tunnel vision. If your single goal on social is to advertise your business, you will fail over and over again. That said, it is OK if that’s a piece of the bigger pie.

Create relationships and earn trust first. Then, pitch your products or services. People buy from people they like. So help them like you, and the rest will fall into place.