Advertising on Facebook quadrupled last year. More than three-quarters of big American companies use some sort of social networking, and most small businesses take off from social media-induced traffic. It’s clear that Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and their contemporaries are becoming vital to businesses, regardless of size. But it’s not a popularity contest. It’s never been.

Anthony Miyazaki, global marketing professor at Florida International University, thinks that most social media professionals are taking the wrong approach to social media. Those “Likes” and fan pages are well and good, but they’re just the start. If you leave it at that, your fans are nothing but names and numbers. What you need to do, he says, is make a real connection with these people.

Give and take

The beauty of social media is that it goes both ways. Before this kind of networking came along, online marketers were content to harvest e-mail addresses and send out newsletters. Social networking allows people to be more than passive receivers—it lets them speak to companies the way they never could with TV advertisers. Take advantage of this when using social media, Miyazaki says. Readers like to be heard and feel valued. It says a lot about how you see your customers when the stage is wide open, but you don’t let them on.

Make friends

People feel better about buying (and are thus more likely to buy again) when they feel they’re helping a friend. Social networking allows you to do just that. Users like to link themselves to brands or products that they personally like, and participate in their polls and contests because they feel they’re part of a community. More friends doesn’t mean more customers, but the customers you do get are likely to stay.

Don’t flood

One of the biggest mistakes in social networking is flooding users with content. No matter how useful your content is, if there’s too much of it, people will turn away. I’ve “unliked” brands on Facebook not because I don’t like product or the company, but because they flood my page with updates. Limit Facebook and Twitter updates to one or two a day, unless you have breaking news.

Tell, not sell

Regular, useful content is still king—social media is just another medium for it. Users can spot blind marketing from a mile away, and straight-up promotion without any informative content (“Buy this product now!”) is a dead giveaway. Offer something to your readers before bringing your product into the picture. Remember, people turn to social network for information. If you establish yourself as a source of information, you’re in a much better place to sell.

Take your time

Overnight successes aren’t unheard of, but they aren’t the norm. Accept the fact that most of us will have to earn our popularity. Lay out a long-term marketing plan that involves slowly gaining people’s trust, rather than jumping into it and waiting for the fans to come. This will keep you from overdoing it when you think it’s going slow, and give you room to adjust when your needs or interests change. If you’re lucky, you just might be the exception and make it big in a week, but don’t pressure yourself—stay on track and you’ll get there.