Social media is oversold as a marketing channel and undervalued as a customer connection. Sales by conversation are an illusion created by people more focused on building personal brands than exploring and developing a new channel. The new media gurus adopted a “sell and destroy” strategy that effectively promoted networking as the only future of marketing and blamed failed attempts by others on insufficient awesomeness.

Creative valuations of marketing campaigns are part of the sell strategy. Traditional success metrics like sales, customer acquisition, and return on investment are replaced with followers, fans, likes, retweets, and comments. Creating viral content that generates buzz replaces increasing revenue and profitability as marketing goals. To the uninitiated, this shift seems ludicrous, but it has become the social media standard.

Questioning this standard activates the destroy part of the strategy. Anyone daring to ask for data proving that social media works is belittled for being clueless. Questions about how to create successful campaigns receive answers like “Be awesome and it will happen” or “Remarkable content creates remarkable success.”

While acting more like snake oil salesman than thought leaders, self-appointed social media experts missed the real value of social networking – customers connecting with companies.

Instead of focusing on building relationships one customer at a time, the emphasis has been on acquiring fans, followers, likes, and plus ones. This strategy worked to create an illusion of success because it provides a comparative view. Someone who has tens of thousands of connections appears more successful than those who haven’t broken a thousand.

The appearance of success has created an environment where the objective is to create a mega-network without concern for quality. Creating a viral campaign takes priority over generating a return on investment. Somewhere along the line the channel that promised better one-to-one relationships has morphed into a mass market.

Despite the hype surrounding viral campaigns, search, advertising, and direct traffic overwhelmingly generate more and better quality website visits than tweets, posts, and shares.

It’s time to accept that the promise of conversations generating significant revenue is a fallacy and move on to activities that consistently deliver a return on investment. Resources are too limited to invest in activities that don’t increase revenue or reduce costs.

Your customers are online. Where, when, and how they participate is a mystery to be solved. They may want to participate in your company’s community. They may want to be left alone until they need service. Or, they may want nothing to do with your business. It’s the marketing team’s job to solve the mystery, establish the communities, and create content. Interacting with customers belongs to the customer service team. They know products, services, and how to make buyers happy better than anyone in the company.

Social networks provide a new way to connect with customers. Using it successfully requires trial and error experimentation to find the best way for your company to connect with the people that matter. A community filled with customers is an extension of your marketing database and an opportunity to turn transactions into relationships. This is where social media is grossly undervalued. Customer retention increases profitability better than any other activity.

It is a shame that one of the best channels for connecting with customers is being ignored by companies because self serving individuals oversold the value of viral marketing. Social media isn’t a way generate sales by reaching millions of people with a tweet or a post. It’s much better than that. It’s a way to get to know your customers one at a time.