A few weeks ago I attended the Insight Summit Series on Public Relations and Social Media at Marquette University. Throughout the many sessions at the day-long summit, I noticed two recurring themes:

1) Without authenticity in your communications, your messages fall on deaf ears and

2) A brand is no longer what the company says it is….it’s what the consumer says it is.

That second concept is a hard pill to swallow for many marketers who want to be able to control the messages being said from and about a brand; with the dawn of social media, this desire becomes impossible to meet. Now, consumers can engage and talk about brands on their own and have their own thoughts and ideas seen on a large-scale. Immediately when one hears this, thoughts drift to the bad: disgruntled customers airing their grievances, interest groups bashing the company, et cetera. What we fail to see, however, is the immense opportunity social media brings to companies in the form of positive recommendations. Now, we have a real-time marketplace of information that gives true, unedited (therefore more trustworthy and authentic) information about a company and why you should (or shouldn’t) buy from them.

What’s a positive recommendation worth? According to AC Nielsen, 92% of consumers say that word of mouth recommendation is the top reason they buy a product or service (84% for B2B customers), and with the Internet Age, these recommendations aren’t hard to find for curious consumers. No longer do you have to find out the true performance of a brand by a next-door neighbor or trusted friend. Now, it can come from complete strangers on the internet: seven out of eight search criteria for Google is driven by social conversations. This means that whenever a consumer wants to learn more about a type of product or the company itself, the information that’s given most often is produced by anyone other than the company in consideration.

So, the next question: how does one get these positive recommendations? The keynote speaker for the summit and author of “Highly Recommended” Paul Rand alludes to the first theme noted: authenticity. For Rand, social media cannot be a one-way push mechanism that only focuses on the company’s products and services. Instead, organizations should be engaging consumers 90% of the time about something other than the product.

What about when users are saying negative comments about the brand? Rand sees this as an opportunity: listen to the conversation and begin engaging the customers; show that you care what they say, and that you’re working to be a better brand. This authenticity and direct communication goes miles in trying to acquire recommendations, as consumers feel more connection to the brand and helping in creating its meaning.

Take a look at your recommendations: see your Twitter connections and view your hashtag; explore the conversations on your Facebook company page; visit the YouTube comment section about videos you’ve made and the videos your customers have made about your products.  Do you like what you see? Do you see room for improvement (hint: there most always is room for improvement)?

Bottom line: the return from looking at your company through your customer’s eyes and from their computer screen can have tremendous, long-term effects.  You cannot afford to let these social realms go unmonitored and untapped, for reaching their full potential can truly take your brand from average to all-star.