The biggest shift in brand marketing is not about time, money or budgets—it’s about ownership. Now more than ever, your audience plays a role in defining your brand. You control your brand’s message, yes, but don’t believe for one second that consumers aren’t doing a little “messaging” of their own. They’re helping to shape your brand, and they’ll have that conversation with or without you. In case you haven’t been formally introduced, welcome to the Land of Social Media.

I was given a press pass for the Pivot Conference hosted by Brian Solis in New York City last week. The lineup of attendees was the Who’s Who of brands including Coca Cola, Hilton, Twitter, Huffington Post, Citibank, Facebook, Bravo, MTV and many more. Topics ranged from becoming a social business to big data to gamification.

But it wasn’t until a lunch panel presentation with Todd Wilms, Sr. Director of Social Media for SAP, when good friend and audience member, Charlie Oliver, asked the question that, to me, was the real question at the conference:

Who owns the brand—the brand itself or the consumer?

She took it a step further and asked, “What makes one person who buys a product or service any more important than the millions of dollars spent by the brand? By spending millions on brand marketing, does that mean you own your own brand message?”

Marketers have differing opinions about this, but I like what founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos, says: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” The voice of the consumer carries so much weight because they are (at least in the consumer’s mind) equally invested in a product or service thanks to their purchasing power and brand loyalty.

It’s the answer to this question that made the entire conference worth it. If brands don’t listen to consumer input, whether or not they participate in the conversation, they will lose half ownership of their brand. For example, brands who’ve decided not to participate in social media are finding that people will create fake profiles and accounts and post/tweet on their behalf. By choosing not to be engaged, they’re losing hold of their voice.

In short, the value of an authentic voice outweighs any money spent if you don’t find out who is influencing and who is engaging. Even consumers who aren’t engaging (social voyeurs) are still influenced by their circle of friends and family.

With all of this in mind, here are five ways I believe you should approach branding as a shared-ownership model:

1. Learn who is talking about you. Think you know your target audience? Maybe you do. But what if you don’t? The first step in this shared-ownership model is to know who your co-owners are. Brands make all kinds of assumptions about who they’re marketing to, but they’re not always right. Confirm your suspicions by engaging with your social networks. If you don’t have any, start building.

2. Know where are they are. This goes along with #1. Details—you need to know details. Where is your audience? What do they want from you? What are their passions? What kind of message resonates with them—or in other words, how do you speak their language? Knowing the details allows you to create more targeted messaging and hone in on what matters to them. So much can be learned about your audience by simply knowing where they are.

3. Listen to what they are saying. A funny thing happens when you listen to your audience. Your passion for your brand is fueled by the passion of your customers. You begin to understand who you are building something with and how you can deliver more value. And all of you together create a new sense of co-ownership. It’s community building at its finest. But only if you listen.

4. Discover when they’re saying it. This is really a part of the listening process—here’s where you can learn what seems to spark conversation on your social media channels. What gets people talking? Pay attention to the events and circumstances surrounding the chatter, and you’ll discover how and when to best engage with your audience.

Determine how will you respond. Nothing to respond to right now? Perfect. That’s the best time to develop a plan. Too many brands respond off the cuff, without thinking it through and creating a social media engagement strategy. I’m not saying don’t be real and authentic. Quite the contrary. Be human, but be trustworthy, professional, personable and maybe even funny (gasp). Humor goes a long way in disarming unhappy consumers, and if it fits your brand, it’s a great quality to add to your response strategy. But like I said—work on that now so when it’s time to respond, you’re not caught off guard.

KEY TAKEAWAY: When it comes to brand marketing, don’t give your consumers more power and ownership than they deserve—BUT don’t fail to recognize their influence and impact, either. Your audience has a number of channels in which to create their own messaging about your brand. If you don’t participate in the conversation, you’re missing out on crucial opportunities. Shake hands with your co-owners.