Conventional marketing wisdom would have it that the more followers your brand has, the better. While there is truth in that, it is a shallow relationship: the more people know about your brand, the more followers you have. It probably means you’re doing a good job spreading awareness. It probably also means that your tweets are mildly entertaining. Beyond that, not much.

What it doesn’t tell you is how engaged with, or close to your brand the individual feels. And arguably, this is the more important metric. After all, you can amass a giant following simply by offering incentives. For example, this past summer, Sabra, a dip company, stationed young promoters at intersections with carts, giving anyone who would follow them on Twitter a free sample of guacamole or hummus and chips. However, these Twitter accounts are now more or less dormant, effectively wasting that “fanbase” they worked so hard and spent so much money to earn. Their account for the Pennsylvania area’s truck has dwindled down to less than 400 followers.

When brands stop posting relevant content, it’s easy for a user to unfollow them. When a user feels like they’re following too many people because of the social desirability of seeming “exclusive,” it’s easy to cull a brand rather than a friend. Simply amassing follows doesn’t leave a deep impression on the individual, and alone, does not promote a social brand.

In contrast, following is proactive and meaningful. It’s a compliment to the user. It leaves an imprint on the user’s memory, because you might be one of hundreds of brands that the user follows, but the only one that follows them back. People will never object to having someone follow them versus having to go in and follow the brand themselves; in fact, people often feel so complimented that they post about it on their own Twitter and/or reciprocate the follow, thereby amplifying the brand more. Whereas following a user can serve to increase that user’s brand loyalty by essentially returning the favor, simply getting that person to follow the brand does not have the same effect. Followers flow unnoticed like water, following is a permanent impression.

That said, brands often underutilize this method, which is surprising considering the cost-to-benefit ratio (or rather, the benefit ratio since the costs associated with it are nonexistent). It’s true that there’s something to be said for having a high follower-to-following ratio. Being one of half a million people followed by a brand is less flattering than being one of a hundred. Yet often, the most valuable asset that comes with this high ratio is the increased value of any follow, rather than any sort of exclusivity shown by the low numbers of people they follow. Instead of using scarcity as a commodity, brands should instead leverage their low number of follows to reach out to higher-profile users.

Following is simply one of many proactive marketing ideas. Other ways of leaving a social impression include putting them on a list (with a complimentary name) or retweeting them, all of which are cheaper than standard advertising. For further information about best practices in proactive marketing ideas and how current top brands use them, see the Social Currency Index.