It is often said that the best form of advertising is “word-of-mouth.” Going all the way back to the middle of last century (and probably even before then, if anyone was keeping track), effective word-of-mouth advertising was the holy grail of professional marketers, regardless of what industry they worked in.

The problem was that word-of-mouth advertising takes a long time to develop. Customers who do business with a company must be sufficiently impressed by the product or service to the point where they recommend the business to a friend or associate. Also, for word-of-mouth advertising to work, a lot of different customers must be telling a lot of different people how good the business is. The marketplace always talks, but back in the day, it took forever for it to actually speak up.

Today, the buzz in marketing shops around the world is about the new model of marketing—attraction marketing using social media. Indeed, social media is changing the way businesses interact with their customers, and vice versa. Social media however is not, in and of itself, a new form of marketing. Instead, it is a much faster and efficient way to deploy a much coveted old form of marketing—word-of-mouth advertising.

Social media allows a business to connect with its customers and then to develop an entire community of them. When deployed properly, it is a very efficient tool for doing this. The problem is that it is all too often not properly deployed, and in some inexplicable cases not even deployed at all. Oddly enough, the reason behind these deficiencies is simple and very familiar; at least in the context of old school word-of-mouth advertising, very similar. Getting properly positioned in social media is hard work, despite the underlying simplicity of the principles involved.

Simply launching a Facebook page, a LinkedIn profile and then firing out a few Tweets does not ensure social media success. This is largely because despite the efficiencies that social media can bring to business communications—particularly when communicating with customers—there is an awful lot of noise out there, mainly due to the very efficiencies that make social media attractive in the first place.

In the age of instantaneous communications, marketers aren’t limited by the amount of information they can deliver, nor by the speed in which they can deliver it. Instead, the limitation is on how much attention any one customer can pay to all of the information being delivered, literally during every waking moment. In the scheme of things, social media can simply become one more distraction that limits both participation in other activities and the consumption of other information.

We tend to use the words social media and social networking interchangeably, but doing so is a mistake. This is because that distinction is the difference between people paying attention to a business, or ignoring it completely.

The difference is that the term social media is simply a platform—such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter—for communicating in a certain way with certain people. A social network on the other hand connects people with common elements into a virtual community that actively shares information with one another. In other words, social media enables a social network.

With this in mind, a business needs three things to convert social media into a true, functional, working social network. First—and this should be the most obvious—is that the business itself must deliver unquestionable value at every step of the way. Every business should identify its unique value proposition and position it to fill a gap in the competitive landscape. Without first having this understanding, a social media campaign serves little purpose. On the other hand, once a business clearly defines its unique value proposition, social media is an excellent way to tell the market about it.

Second, the business needs the expertise to use social media effectively if it is going to be leveraged into a true social network. That starts with an understanding of the individual social media platforms, but ultimately requires high quality content that sets the business apart. The only way to get recognized in the busy, noisy sea of social media messages is to rise above the fray with content—and related messages—that uniquely differentiate the company, and that provide value in the process.

In order to leverage social media effectively, the focus should be on quality and not just quantity. While it is indeed important to post regularly, posted content should always deliver value. Posting simply for the sake of getting out there is one reason why there is so much noise in social media, without a lot of substance. For some companies, creating a steady stream of high value content is easy. Businesses who do not have the time or internal resources to create content internally can repost (with accreditation) from other sources, or can pay for their own custom content. Regardless of how it is created though, high quality, valuable content is essential to social media success.

Third, a business needs to jumpstart the conversion from social media to social network. This is done by leveraging engaged and committed employees in order to propagate the company’s content and messages to their own, personal networks. (See the LEAF blog article on Engaged Employees, here.) When engaged employees reach out to their individual networks, the flame is lit and the conversion to social network begins.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that no matter how much the game seems to be changing, the underlying principles still remain the same. Word-of-mouth advertising is the best way to promote a business, since it relies on the trusted opinion of one human being passed on to and believed by another. There is no marketing hype and hyperbole in word-of-mouth advertising—the message is as pure as it gets. That is the underlying principle.

What has changed is the way that word-of-mouth advertising happens—and today, that is by effectively creating a social network by using social media.