ImageWe invent hashtags, issue images in hopes of getting re-tweeted, ask tiresome questions of our Facebook fans and we think we’re being social.

We share clever semi-contextual ads on our Twitter stream and because we’re doing it in real time we think we’re being social.

We stick a QR code on an ad or a billboard or a retail display, assuming some poor soul will actually scan it, and we think we’re being social.

But if we’re honest, we’d have to admit that more often than not we’re simply using social media rather than exhibiting social behavior.

True there are plenty of examples of brands doing it right. But as more and more marketers incorporate social media into their efforts, there remains a tendency to fall back on old practices and ways of thinking. Control the message. Focus on reach. Strive to collect fans and followers that we’re not even sure what to do with after we’ve amassed enough to make us feel as if we’ve been successful.

But this week I was reminded what social behavior is really all about — inviting participation, creating community, generating content, and enhancing the experience that a user has with a brand in a way that yields a mutually rewarding experience. All evident in relatively small initiative from the Getty Museum.

As the only museum in the US to exhibit Vermeer’s Lady in Blue as the wonderful painting makes its way around the world, the museum found a perfectly relevant way to invite patrons to think about the painting, explore its meaning and play a part in a collective effort to imagine the opening line in the concealed letter that grips the attention of the woman reading it.

Hundreds of art lovers submitted lines, some serious, some eloquent, some amusing, some set in the 1600′s, some imagining the future.

In doing so, the Getty actually encouraged people to think about the painting, the moment captured, Vermeer’s intentions, the story that might be contained in its 270 square inches. It gave Vermeer fans a reason to pay to attention, participate and engage. And perhaps more importantly it didn’t ask for much in return. No likes. No follows. No pleas to purchase a ticket or visit the exhibit.

It’s more than likely that the masses, the general public, even the majority of the Getty’s 400,000-plus followers on Twitter don’t really care. Or would never take the time to play along. But for those that did, it was a way to feel involved with both the museum and the painting.

And, of course, to see which opening line Anne Martens, the Getty’s resident multi-media writer, chose to start the completed letter.

You can look at Anne’s first and second posts on celebrating the painting and check out some of the opening lines submitted on the Getty Museum’s blog.

And finally, some lessons to consider as you think about your next social media initiative.

Know your users and invent something with which they will want to engage

Remember this is for them not for you. Too many social campaigns have already forgotten that you have to bring something useful and entertaining to the party. It starts with seeing things from a user’s perspective. What Vermeer lover wouldn’t want some encouragement and an idea for how to think about the painting?

Stop using social media as an ad medium

The Getty could have Instagrammed and Tweeted images of the painting. Or even made clever little ads and sent those out. But is that really being social? Social implies interaction, conversation and a relationship.

Integrate all of the platforms

The Getty let users join in via its blog, Twitter and Facebook. And the museum cross posted content, along with responses and conversation on all of them. Go where your users are; give them lots of ways to interact with you.

Make this kind of engagement part of your brand behavior

If you constantly generate small initiatives like this you’ll find more ways to connect with customers and your communities in ways that serve their interests and needs. And you’ll take the pressure off of trying to hit homeruns all the time.

Re-think your metrics

Finally, stop evaluating initiatives like this based on likes, followers and clicks. Instead, measure interaction, engagement, depth of conversation, word of mouth, and even the press coverage that comes out of it. If you do you’ll see more value in trying to develop a never ending stream of small ideas that keep the dialog going and give your users a reason to keep coming back.