If you have any kind of social presence at all, you have at least some followers — whether they’re following you on Twitter, Liking you on Facebook, or adding you to Circles on Google+. However, your follower count doesn’t tell the whole story about your brand’s social presence. You might have thousands of followers, but what about comments, shares, retweets, and conversions?

“Social followers are simply numbers,” explains our own Brit Thompson, Social Marketing Manager at Sprout Social. “While they can indicate engaging content or strong brand awareness, it’s difficult to activate those people if community hasn’t been a focus.”

An engaged following, however, is a social community built around your brand, full of people who are interested in and excited about what your company does. If you take the time to nurture your social community beyond follower count, you’ll find they’ll help spread brand awareness, comment on and share your content, offer feedback, and act as social evangelists for your company or products. “Whether you’re a business, non-profit, or interest group, cultivating a strong community in which members feel involved, emotionally vested, and important will help you activate — or have them take action — to drive business goals,” Brit says.

That’s the kind of asset any brand would would be happy to have, so we dug in to just how you can turn your followers into a social community.

Building Your Brand With a Dedicated Community Manager

No matter how large or small your business, you could stand to have a team member who’s devoted to building your community. “A community manager should be brought onboard early in the life of the company,” says Brit. “The ability to connect with early adopters and begin building those relationships with customers from the beginning is invaluable. Focusing on connections from the get-go will help the business gain momentum, boost word-of-mouth recommendations, and lay a strong foundation for when the brand and community really begins to take off.”

You probably have at least one employee dealing with social media — either as all or part of their job — but community management is a somewhat different task. It’s mostly a question of what your social staff is focused on. A social media manager works to manage brand communications in order to drive business goals like sales or conversions, while a community manager will work to foster the community and make personal connections.

This isn’t to say that community managers won’t help you meet the same business goals, because they almost certainly will — but they’ll do it by growing a dedicated community around your brand rather than pushing directly for conversions. The benefits might be harder to see in your social metrics but trust us, they’re there in increased engagement.

Though your business may not need a dedicated staffer to purely deal with community — it’s something that can certainly be done by other social or marketing staff — having someone community-focused is an investment in your brand’s long-term future. While community-building won’t pay off tomorrow, a social community is more likely to stick with your brand because you’ve invested the time to help them and make them feel valued — beyond just selling them a product.

Turning Followers Into Community Members

So you’ve been working to accumulate lots of social followers — how do you go about turning those followers into the dedicated community you want? Brit has some advice on that, too. “Hopefully, you’ve been working at this from the start,” she says. But even if you’re starting from square one, it’s not too late to start working on building community “Try to connect with them one-on-one if you can. Find out what’s important to them and do what you can to help them achieve it. Then begin building from there — introduce other community members to each other if they’re able to help each other.”

Once you’ve got your community going, just keep at it! “Continue to help them reach their goals and give back. Find ways to make them feel valued. Always be looking for new ways to connect or different touch points,” Brit explains. “Community building is so much more than social media, so even if you’re not in the same city or country as your community members, look for ways to take things offline to help build deeper relationships, whether it’s hosting an event in their town or sending cupcakes just because.”

Even if it’s not directly related to your business, anything you can do to help your customers out will make them more devoted to your brand — and that means it’s definitely worth your time to connect with them in whatever ways you can.