We need to be clear on something at the outset. Whenever you gather a whole bunch of people in one place, someone is going to try to figure out how to sell them something. The smart sellers are going to spend some time understanding what caused all these people to come together, whether there is some underlying commonality among them, and then determine what it is that makes the most sense to try to sell.

We’re not going to sell an oversized foam #1 finger at a Shakespeare theatre festival. (But I think I’d like to experience that.)

So when we start a discussion of the value of social media to the professional public relations and marketing world, we need to call it out. We are selling something! We might be selling a product, but we aren’t always. Sometimes we’re selling a point of view, a perspective, an opinion that we’d like our audience to espouse as their own. Sometimes we’re trying to enhance an image or change a misconception.

But we are always selling something.

And from the minute that we, communications and marketing professionals, walk into a digital social platform, we need to embrace the idea that not a single person in our audience came to that platform with the idea of buying anything. Not one.

Social media is personal. It’s not a public experience. It’s 100% customizable and changeable to our individual interests. We follow whom we want. We interact with whom we want. We engage with content on our own moment-by-moment whims. And when any of that irritates us, we unfollow it. Or we block it. Or we just walk away.

Woe unto us, we professionals who, blinded by the light of millions of potential customers, wade into a Personal Media platform with a tone-deaf business message. Think of the ridicule we might receive walking that foam #1 finger into the fourth row of an outdoor production of Hamlet. You laugh. But there are plenty among us who do just that. We create a product brand page for our client, dutifully create commercial content to populate the page, promote the content via the client’s website, and support content amplification by sharing it with our friends and friends of friends. And then we wonder why our client gets no followers. We wonder why the content gets no engagement.

I suppose it might be the content (the #1 finger). It might be.

But more likely, it’s the person wearing the #1 finger. They made the decision to bring it to the theater.

There is only one way to be successful selling anything on a social (personal) media platform, and that is by making whatever it is that you’re selling… personal. What does your audience enjoy? What are they talking about? What makes them laugh? What are their hobbies? Who are they proud of? Who is already in the conversation who can carry your message for you?

Fundamentally, how can I join those social (personal) conversations and experiences… unobtrusively and unintrusively… without attracting attention and without interfering? We must seem as if we have been part of the conversation all along, and have a natural, authentic, and deserved place in that conversation.

Engaging professionally with social media audiences should be difficult. If it were easy, everyone would do it. But the platforms would crumble when people fled the commercial conversations that were drowning out the social interactions.

Instead, it’s real work, applying rigorous personal filters to professional content, and thinking constantly about your audience’s needs first and always. But when we do, we give ourselves a chance.

Good luck.