There are several important but hazy lines that every business using social media must walk. You need to sell without making an explicit pitch. You need to promote without appearing over-eager. And most importantly, you need to build relationships with people who will never be your friends.

To further complicate your job, there is no single solution to finding a balance between those opposing needs. Each company, and possibly even each employee within a company will have a different idea of how best to relate to customers on social media. Your team will need to reach some consensus as to the tone and style you will take in building those relationships. Here are some critical points to keep in mind as you plan your social media presence.

Conflicting Motives

By and large, your audience hasn’t joined a network in order to better connect with a brand. They want to communicate with their friends, or maybe meet new ones. They want to stay in touch with their acquaintances and loved-ones across the country, sometimes across the world.

That’s why there’s so often a major backlash when social media networks make changes clearly designed to cater better to business members. There are still some misconceptions among the general public about how these networks support themselves. It’s common for people to be disgruntled about the increasingly blatant commercialization of a resource that was billed to them as a fun, free way to connect with like-minded people.

Businesses need to understand those motives and those frustrations of their audiences. It’s essential to keep them in mind when deciding how to best approach casual members of any network.

Prepare to Walk the Line

Before you can figure out the best arrangement to satisfy both company and clients, your business needs to do some self-assessment. Get together with your top leadership and your social media experts to talk about what your brand expects to get out of being on social media. Again, there isn’t one right answer, so be sure to consider all possibilities.

Next, be realistic about who your audience is. Think about their ages, their interests, their online activities. You should do the same level of research as you would for any marketing or sales venture. Operating on social media doesn’t change those core principles.

Finally, make sure that you can devote enough resources to your social media accounts. From hiring enough team members to allocating a sufficient budget, you need to enter into a social media network with the raw materials to accomplish your goals.

You need to take these steps to understand your brand’s motives for participating in social media. Without a clear purpose and plan, you won’t be able to reconcile interests in these platforms with the needs and desires of your public.

Earning the Relationship

Given the variety of motives for a company to engage in social media, some people treat brands on social media with a little distrust. In order for those folks to overcome their understandable skepticism, your company will need to prove that you deserve to be part of their online lives.

There are a few basic rules that can help you earn the social media endorsement of a customer. Most boil down to common sense. For example, be transparent with your actions. People don’t like to feel like they’re being manipulated or used, so don’t pretend that you are anything other than a business.

Another important way to earn relationships with customers is to offer value. If your social media focus is customer support, then make sure your service team goes above and beyond the call of duty. For brands running a Facebook Page for your product, keep the content light and entertaining. Offer good deals, giveaways, and contests by way of social media — if you think your audience will appreciate them.

Just like any good relationship, both companies and customers need to feel that they are benefiting from connecting on social media. Be sure to keep the needs of your public in mind, as well as their concerns.

How does your brand define customer relationships on social media? Let us know in the comments!

[Image credits: Don LaVange, Thomas Quine, Graeme Maclean, Broad Bean Media]