There’s a theme I’ve been hearing from brands and retailers lately. The time has been spent, the vibrant fan base has been built, and it’s time to generate some real return on our social investments – but how?

Well, we know it’s not a question of volume. After all, there’s no shortage of content being created by brands of all shapes and sizes. Most have someone in-house managing social media full-time, and they’re tweeting, posting and pinning with the best of them.

It’s not an “information overload” question either, contrary to what many experts have been suggesting. In fact, according to new research, “the high volume of information available these days seems to make most people feel empowered and enthusiastic”.

The daily deluge of updates from friends, family, news networks and brands doesn’t look to be scaring customers away, but it’s not generating the return anyone expected either. It seems the question, then, isn’t the quantity of posts in social, but rather the quality of what’s being posted. The social customer is unique, and as a result, needs to be marketed to in a way that’s sensitive to their needs. What’s the message you’re sending them? Are you promoting product in an exciting and engaging way, or just keeping the customer in touch with your brand? If the goal is to drive product discovery, encourage deeper product exploration and create brand affinity and loyalty (and chances are one of these goals exists for every brand today), it’s about what you say, not how many times you say it.

Consider for a moment how you typically discover new products. If you’re at a bar with a few friends, and you casually notice someone wearing a great pair of jeans across the room, you might consider getting a pair for yourself the next time you’re out shopping. Your interest is piqued. You’re probably not ready to buy anything just yet, but you do want to learn more. In a normal scenario, you might ask where the person bought them, or check out the brand’s site on your phone and add them to your wishlist.

Now imagine there’s a person in the corner of the bar running a little pop-up shop, selling those jeans on the spot. You can just see them now, waving their hand at you, perhaps offering a discount or special and pushing for that purchase right this minute. What are the chances you’re headed over, wallet in hand, ready to buy what you just discovered moments ago? For most, they’d be slim.

Unfortunately, this is how it feels to your social customers when they click on an interesting post on your brand’s fan page, and are taken directly to an eCommerce product page and checkout. We are just starting to figure out how social impacts the buying process and many marketers just don’t know how their customers use social. This is part of the reason conversion has been elusive. The effort may be to engage the customer, but the execution often results in filling their stream with posts that get ignored or worse – pushing too hard for the sale that never ends up happening.

Let’s consider a typical shopping scenario. In a retail setting, lots of energy is put into presenting the product in an interesting way and drawing the customer into the store. From there, the stage is set for a customer to browse and look at other options. All the products are laid out neatly on their shelves and the salespeople are helpful. When the time comes that the customer is ready to buy, the process is simple and painless.

There’s the disconnect: A customer’s needs don’t change when they’re online, only the venue does. The approach and expectations need to be adjusted, but the philosophy remains the same. The bar in my earlier example becomes the social network, where people are spending their time and are open to engaging with new products. The person wearing the nice pair of jeans becomes the social post- making the customer aware of how good they could look, but without pushing to close a sale.

Once you’ve caught their eye, the customer needs a chance to shop in a manner they’re familiar with. Sharing needs to be fun and easy, and checkout should be seamless and simple. The mechanics are easy enough to understand: The more interesting the presentation of a product to a customer (through rich media posts, for example), the higher the likelihood of grabbing their attention. From there, the quality of the experience will dictate the success of the effort, and is the linchpin to creating the return on investment that everyone is looking for.

As brands uncover actionable insights about their social customers, we can expect to see exciting innovations in product promotion. The market will continue to evolve, and with it, the need for brands to be nimble and thoughtful in how they connect with their customers using social media. Creativity will be key, and as long as the basics are never forgotten, the growth will continue – and the brands that do it best will reap the benefits.

Read more: