It’s right there in the name – social – and yet many companies still approach social media as a one-way street. It’s easy to become so focused on all the great news you have to spread that you think of social media like many other forms of media – a vehicle through which to get your story out. But in reality, the heart of social media is interaction. Brands that do it best – and see returns both in customer loyalty and on the bottom line – approach social media as a way to engage and actively interact with their current and prospective customers, not just talk at them.

A well-rounded social media strategy should seek to build a community around your brand. Like any relationship, that takes some time, some focus, responsive communication and a little give and take. Social media can help you transform brand “likers” into bona fide brand advocates by offering positive interactions that are mutually beneficial. And if you listen, you’ll learn a lot about what your customers want, their interests and hot buttons and their feedback on your product – and maybe your competitors’ too.

But they’re not all “likers” you say? True. More and more, social media has become a primary interface for customer service.  In fact, the ease with which customers turn to social media outlets with their issues or complaints is the stuff of nightmares for some companies who live in fear of that negative comment reverberating through social media space. It’s true that social media has brought customer service interactions into the public arena like never before and brought with it high expectations from consumers for responsiveness. A recent article from Harvard Business Review cited research showing 30% of users prefer service via social media rather than through a phone-based service center. Further, it showed that 72% of people who complained to a brand on Twitter expected a response in less than one hour.

While those numbers can be intimidating, the possible upside is encouraging. Brands that do proactively address potential issues or problems, both ones communicated directly to them and those uncovered through active monitoring, stand a better chance of turning that negative experience into a positive one. Offering a solution and a sincere (not canned) apology where appropriate can do wonders to turn a detractor back into a fan while the whole world watches. Ignore them or, worse yet, delete or block their communications on your social channels and you set the stage for more negativity. Because while shutting down complaints or comments in your own space may give you a comforting feeling of control, in reality there are many other willing ears ready to listen – hundreds and thousands of them in fact.

It’s important to remember that on the other side of that screen sits your actual living, breathing customer. Cultivate a positive relationship through a smart, well-planned, customer-focused social media effort and you might be surprised at the fruits of your labors.