We are informed constantly that social media will change the way companies do business, yet at the same time we are witnessing some initial buyer’s remorse and disappointment with social media due to the lack of tangible results. Both apply, but the lack of success is partly because we have not changed enough.

All too often, we apply traditional thinking to social media, building up ever-larger fan and follower counts to increase message reach. This approach is natural, born from years of measuring call-to-action responses in low, single-digit percentages but social media actually works best in the opposite way. It is far more effective to have a more meaningful connection with a smaller group who will in turn propagate and share the message with people in their networks. Shareability—an ugly term, I know—is fast becoming the buzzword du juor, using advocates as conduits (I hesitate to use the word channel here). If studies claiming that people trust other people far more than marketers are to be believed, reaching new audiences through advocates, is the core of social media.

Indeed, this changes how we market and sell. First, we need to identify and develop brand advocates; these are likely existing customers and, in the insurance industry, our agents. We need to provide them with content and tools that are not only relevant but motivate and inspire them to pass on with their implicit endorsement. People like to be helpful, and being the bearer of good information creates a level of satisfaction, and that is the incentive we must create.

Social media, as with all new ideas and technologies, is going through a series of phases. Thankfully, we can see the end of the “superficial” phase where emphasis has been on gaining thousands or even millions of fans and providing information in 140 or fewer characters. To excel in the shareability phase, emphasis must move back to more substantive content.

It is worth noting that more industry successes with social media are now coming from insurers that identify and connect with specific communities. We even see significant success in the reinsurance industry, which is as far away from the superficial reputation of social media as you can get.

So, bottom line, think of social media as starting small with the goal of propagating via proxy and endorsement versus the traditional approach of casting a wide net and hoping for small returns.

This commentary originally appeared at Insurance Networking News.