Content strategist Sara Elizabeth Williams looks at why brands must know what excites consumers to engage with them.

A compelling presence on the social web has the potential to transform most businesses and brands. But precious few get it right. Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and especially Facebook are littered with so-what accounts broadcasting samey self-promotional messages that few existing customers and even fewer potential customers really care about. Why is it so difficult to start meaningful relationships online?

It's true that the media landscape has become more crowded, but it's also true that people take in more information – and more branded content – than they have done before. The social web is just that: a web. It's all connected and brand's customers are already there.

If a brand's message is interesting, people will listen. They'll also share, advocate and respond. But they must see a value in doing so – and here's where it all falls down. As a consumer of information, my time has value – it's a currency. And I want to spend my time consuming information that is of value to me: it's a simple value exchange. What frustrates me, as a maker and consumer of information, is that so many brands and organisations just aren't seeing this equation.

The social web sees fewer car crashes these days – last year's #QantasLuxury debacle is the most recent disaster that comes to mind – but the list of standout performers isn't growing at the rate it should. This is disappointing: the social web is a nearly free (it costs time) network of platforms and services – tools to reach more people and in more interesting ways. Yet it just isn't happening the way it should, or could.

The mistake most brands and businesses make is an easy one: they think they're a lot more interesting than they are. As an ex-agency copywriter, now freelance consultant, I see this a lot, especially with small businesses. It's a sort of blinder that most brands wear: they only see themselves. To join a conversation – and this is what the social web is, a huge, messy, loud, ever-changing conversation that is capable of totally transforming your business – they need to have a reality check about 'interesting'. It's not all about them. It's about their common ground with the people they want to engage with, and what they have to offer that has value to them.

The conversation is on customers' terms, not the brand's

Taking off the client blinders could have saved Qantas a pile of money and dignity last year. Asking customers what their "dream luxury in-flight experience" was akin to begging for a brand hijacking. Qantas may love its brand, but it was a mistake to assume everyone else did too. Rather, the safe assumption was that everyone wants to take a sarcastic shot at a brand that has ticked them off... and so they did.

The critical step brands need to take before wading out into the social web is to take off the blinders and ask some hard questions: what is interesting to the kind of people they want to attract? What do they have or do or know that is of value to those people? What makes them interesting? And then the biggie: what have they done – or not done – that people could jump on and criticise? (Tip: there's always something. If you can't find it, look harder.)

In the middle of those answers there's an idea: something they can offer, a conversation they can have. Look at General Electric on Instagram: possibly not the most obvious platform for the brand, but the perfect example of a social web value exchange at work: GE has behind the scenes access to some of the biggest machines and most interesting technologies around. Photos of mega-engines and uber-conductors? Very interesting to the very people GE wants to engage.

GE could have played it safe with company updates and product facts – like so many brands do. But by asking the big questions and putting some real thought into it, the brand ended up with a far smarter, more interesting and more effective presence. All of us – makers and consumers of information – need more like it.

Sara Elizabeth Williams is a digital copywriter, editor and content strategist. She is running the D&AD's Social Media Landscape event on September 6, where creative and marketing pros can find out more about how to turn social media to their advantage.