Courtesy of Mashable.

As if the pressure from your boss (who’s already questioning what his investments in social media are really getting him) wasn’t enough, Forrester had to go do some research and drop a serious dose of reality on everybody’s golden goose. Surveying 58,000 online consumers in the U.S., Forrester found that only 15% of consumers trust posts by companies on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Ouch. Isn’t social media supposed to be all about creating trust between brands and consumers? What happened?

Then there was this: 70% of those surveyed said recommendations from friends and family are the most trustworthy. Although that should be completely obvious to most people, seeing these two statistics on opposite sides of the spectrum says this to me: either social media is not what we thought it was, or we’re just doing it wrong. I think it’s the latter.

Yes, I’m talking to you social media strategists (including myself). If consumers see corporate social media campaigns as the same ol’ advertising in fancy new social media clothes, then that’s likely a reflection of how we are treating them. It’s no surprise then that they’re not eager to extend us trust—they can see the disguise from a mile away.

Let’s not dwell on the negatives here, though—I think we can fix what’s broken. It’s possible that the gap between what we think we are providing and what we are truly delivering to customers comes down to this: there’s no exchange of value between ourselves and our customers. In the end, we seek value from our customers in the form of their recommendation, but are we really committed to providing reciprocal value? In other words, are we willing to make our social communities more about them than they are about us?

Granted, this is not an easy task, and even more pressing is that lately it’s become clear that it’s not enough to give customers what they want; we need to give it to them in real time. Before we can think about real time, we should focus on figuring out who our audience is and what they truly want.

Take Red Bull, for example. They get a lot of buzz for being a social savvy brand. The way I believe they do this is simple: They found out what their audience was all about (extreme, and niche sports, art and music—you know, young people stuff), and they gave it to them by sponsoring athletes like Felix Baumgartner and making real contributions to the culture around motorsports, biking, surfing, etc. They even have their own magazine all about those topics—not about Red Bull.

Make no mistake, for most companies taking this approach requires a serious shift in culture and thinking. But if we really want to take control of the potential of social media, and in turn be more connected to our customers, we must focus on delivering tangible value to them.

As you think about your audience and social content strategy, keep in mind four questions that I like to ask when considering the approach to just about anything we do in social:

  1. How do our customers use the channel, and what do they want out of it?
  2. What content exists (and doesn’t exist) that is relevant to the varying ways our audience leverages the channel?
  3. What accessible and valuable methods are available for us to use?
  4. What are the business realities that need consideration?

I fully believe that our focus as social media strategists must be on the exchange of value in order for us to earn consumer trust and endorsement. Even the best brands all too often fall into the trap of what’s in it for us instead of what’s in it for the consumer. At the end of the day, if we aren’t giving consumers anything valuable, then we haven’t earned their trust and we’re back in the Forrester Research doghouse.