Social Media is not actually one thing. It is an umbrella term that covers a multitude of approaches to communicating with consumers.
Because Social Media is often seen by Marketing and Communications people as yet another channel through which to distribute corporate materials, many companies forget the basics of branding and marketing when it comes to Social Media.
Like Social Media, People are not one thing. They are not a demographic, or even a psychographic. There are 4 unique kinds of audiences, each of which has to be approached in a different fashion - with a different messaging strategy.
4 Unique Audiences of Online Consumers
1) Your Market
These people know who you are and what you do. They look for you, follow you on Twitter, check in on Foursquare, look for weekly specials on Facebook.
Your Market is already engaged with you. When you talk they, listen...and they respond. They promote your work, retweet, "like," participate in contests, etc. These folks are your bread and butter.
Your message to these people should be filled with rewards for loyalty, insider deals and specials. Talk to these people as if they are friends and comrades - give them information and encourage them to share it. Get to know these people by name and thank them publicly for their support. They are part of your team - treat them like it.
2) Your Audience
These people know who you are and what you do. They may follow/friend you, they may not. When you do something noteworthy in your industry and the news hits all the big trade sources, then these folks are likely to hear about it - you hope. Your audience may or may not be your market. Just because they know you, doesn't mean they buy from you.
Your message to these people should encourage conversion to market. These are folks who may be on the fence, or for whom a small discount can mean a sale. Don't beat them over the head with sales material - they may or may not care - but encourage with discounts, extras, and other incentives.
This is the group you can exhort to follow you, but you *have* to make it worth their time. Just shooting off press releases at them or forgetting to run that weekly special isn't going to make you any friends.
Most companies do all right targeting these two audiences. They know that they are being listened to, and are glad to see conversations on the Wall, or on their Twitter stream.
But the constant pressure to Friend/Follow/Like often goes nowhere, except to a Wall where only the customers talk, or a Twitter feed that offers nothing but links back to the company website.
There are many opportunities that engaging with these two audience offers. Don't miss your chance to dial up your engagement with them - or theirs with you!
Which brings us to the two Unique Audiences that are frequently left out of companies' Social Media Strategy entirely.
3) Your Potential Audience
These people may have heard of you, but they don't care. You're not on their top of mind and they have no reason to seek you out. They are not following you, liking what you have to say or checking in at your location. These people don't know where you are online, but if they did, they could very well be interested.
There's a huge gap here in many industries. Companies have their spaces and ask people to come to those spaces, but rarely do companies move out of their comfort zone to seek people out. There are multitudes of places online where people are asking questions that *you can answer.* They don't know about your forum, or your blog, or your "Ask An Expert Tool," even though that would be just what they are looking for.
It's your job to find these people. Look for them where they hang out, don't ask them to follow you to get help - just help them. Give them that answer, that link, that reference. And, when you have satisfied their immediate need, then you have an opening to suggest greater engagement.
This is your potential audience - wow them.
And finally there is...
4) The Rest of the World
They have no idea who you are, what you do and most importantly, why they should care. Companies rarely use Social Media to expand brand recognition into related or unrelated but relevant territory, yet Social Media is the best tool for that job.
Your message to people in related or unrelated but relevant spaces is "We're here - and here's why you should care," in a way that draws attention not to you, but to what you can offer them.
Perhaps you publish horror comics. You find a horror film community that has no idea your company exists, but you engage them with insight into creating horror stories. These people might not have reached out to you, but you reaching out to them could drive a lot of potential business your way...as long as you let them know that you are one of them.
It's critical to a long-term Social Media Strategy to account for all four of these audiences. It's not enough for a fast-food restaurant to only tell people already in the store about a new burger - it's important to use that news to bring new people into the restaurant.
Adapting you message allows you to reward your dedicated market, engage with your audience and your potential audience and make new people aware of what you can do for them.