Valeria Maltoni is the founder and principal of Conversation Agent, where she works with organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and writes one of the top 30 marketing blogs worldwide as ranked by the AdAge Power150.

We caught up with Valeria between her frequent speaking gigs to talk about relationship marketing, how to grow your business with more than just tactics, the real bottom line on social media, and the sources that help fuel her thinking and insights.

Hunter Boyle: Tell us what you’re focused on lately with your work and Conversation Agent.

Valeria Maltoni: I’m taking a look at the bigger question of confidence in business. Brand managers, communicators, marketers tell me they are constantly in reactionary mode and are seeking a seat at the executive table by being more proactive. There is a path to step up your game.

Confidence takes work. There are no wrong answers — it really is early days with social and even digital media hold more exciting opportunity. What’s served up in the mainstream right now is the concept of “trust” because it’s the easy choice.

What does it take for brands to get beyond tactics and, as you suggest, create a truly authentic, human voice for their business? Why is it so hard for many companies to overcome?

The idea that the solution is the opposite of the problem is a common misconception. The solution lies in creating the conditions upon which clients/customers can buy and keep buying in confidence.

Confidence comes from making the best possible promises, delivering on them, exchanging value in return and then making better promises. Promises made in confidence and not hope is what leads to strong, resilient, and enduring organizations. Social technology helps directly with that.

Brands benefit more from confidence than trust. One way to measure the value of a brand is to measure the gap between what was promised and what was delivered. This is the brand delta. The smaller the gap, the larger the premium. But as the gap grows, the brand’s value diminishes until goods and services need to be discounted. This is valid for any size business.

Social media is clearly a driving force in this, so what should organizations be doing with those channels that most aren’t doing already? What about other digital channels?

It’s 2012 and we’re still talking about channels. Social is about how do you continue having people understand what the exchange is about (and not just trying to sell). Dell took control of its promises. It reached out from behind the shop floor and started to close the brand dissonance gap. When you become available in response, social turns buyers into customers.

It’s about giving people a way to organize their experience. Their mind opens wide. Provide a way to organize experience, and everything else flows from that.

You built one of the first online communities with Fast Company. Tell us what you learned from that and what lessons still apply to building online communities today.

Whether it’s 12 years ago or a hundred years ago, people respond in the same way — people sign up to do the work once you give them a way to organize their experience.

We’re seeing a lot about the evolution of the traditional sales funnel and AIDA models. How do you see the sales and marketing process evolving today?

Evolution as development is gradual and you often see it only looking back. Some advantages brands and businesses have today are the ability to go direct to their customers. You’ll hear often people talking about the need to think like publishers — broadening topics to notable industry issues, including third party testimonials and research with technical specifications.

At a more tactical level, I’m a big believer in the power of email to help establish a relationship of mutual interest. When you’re invited (by opt-in) into people’s inbox, that’s a valuable place, it’s the gateway to someone’s “to do” list. For example, in my premium newsletter, I publish deeper research and analysis of topics I shared in the blog’s editorial calendar that got a lot of attention. So there is a way to qualify leading content and read people’s digital body language to give them what helps them in their work.

You can re-imagine content and package it in various visual formats as well. In fact, you’ll be using topics to pull interest both with organic search and through sharing by people in social networks, and your experience and smarts to hold attention. Inbound marketing helps you lower the cost of leads as well.

You’ve spoken about the need to “engage the Human OS” — elaborate on what that means and why it’s so important.

Many businesses feel they need a tactical Hail Mary rather than anything solid. It doesn’t work or doesn’t hold you for long when you operate at “app” level.

Being flexible at comprehending — identifying, classifying, and putting in a model is about source code. Analyzing is about thinking to motivate doing in a more appropriate way. What people do in the end flows from why and how. So you need to operate from the motivation. What is it that people (read: customers and clients) want to do? How can you use your experience and practice to help them leverage their own assets to trade more effectively?

Not long ago, you blogged a list of 50 #mustread blogs; if you could choose only three from that list, the ultimate must reads, which would make the cut?

That was a suggestion filtered from the 300 or so blogs I discovered in the last year, so the list of 50 is already pared down and organized in categories or buckets of usefulness. If you explore just a new one a day, in a couple of months, you have developed a sense of what helps you most with what you’re working on, and maybe discovered new content through them as well.

What Do You Think?

How are you approaching your relationship marketing? What do you doing to build or maintain confidence in your organization? Don’t be shy — share your thoughts in the comments.