When marketing executive Nichole Kelly took a deeper look at the million-strong social media community she built for a national debt relief organization, she noticed something remarkable. 

It wasn't so much that the people who touched this community were the most valuable customers the organization had, eye-popping though those numbers were: Kelly was measuring better form submissions (179 percent more likely), dramatically stronger return-to-form rates (680 percent stronger), and higher sales (217 percent more likely to make their first payment) from online social community members.

More remarkable was that the value generated and exchanged went beyond that between customer and organization. The social media community was proactively sharing stories and advice about debt management techniques, engaging with one another to shed their shame and improve financial situations. And they did it well after they were out of debt, sticking around to help others up after they climbed the mountain themselves.

I interviewed Kelly during the research for my book, and as she pointed out to me, "you had people in very vulnerable positions in their lives, dealing with an issue that has a lot of shame around it, sharing and connecting."

This kind of value in online groups is what most marketing teams dream of when we plan our social media investment (and what social media agencies promise when pitching their services). But in reality, when the value returned reaches the levels Kelly realized, it's something larger than marketing and in my experience quite rare. 

It's an exchange of social capital, a much more sophisticated--but learnable--dynamic that requires leadership acumen. Not marketing chops.

Social media marketing efforts usually generate at best what social scientists call sociability. That is, simply bringing a group together around a common interest. Which makes sense: Marketers are trained and conditioned to think about audiences and channels.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You know there are people following you on social media, and some vague sense of activity. Some like your stuff, fewer still share some of it. But what is it all doing for you? What's the point? 

If this is your brand's social media reality, congratulations: You've built a group. That's sociability.

But social scientists have recognized for some time that social groups acting together for a collective purpose while putting individual desires and goals in an ancillary position--like what Kelly was able to achieve and what social media marketers usually just fantasize about and promise--is what generates actual value in social groups. Namely, social capital.

This is called associability. Two little letters. Big difference.

How is associability achieved? A nuanced focus on the ties that bind the connections together (including structural ties), allowing for agency, and trust. In a word, leadership.

Marketers who spend time with leadership concepts can learn about influence in all kinds of areas helpful to their craft. This is of keen interest to me, and facilitating social groups is a prime example.

For instance, leaders who are savvy at building social capital know they have to get hands-on with the structure of their networks. Kelly intentionally and personally interceded in hers, doing things like asking the more influential members to turn their advice into blog posts.

Social-capital savvy leaders also know that social groups hate hierarchy and thrive by having some agency over where the group goes. Social groups are much more like a murmuration of starlings than an audience or channel, and Kelly knew she had to relinquish some control and let the community share best practices without her or the brand getting in the way. She also renounced funnel-thinking (a top-down, control-based construct) in her social media spaces, "looking for opportunities for connection, not opportunities for conversion" as she put it to me.

And here's some more bad news for marketers: Bait-and-switches kill trust--and thus the social capital--in social groups. So marketers' conjured formulas of value-add content to promotional content is a marketing fairytale. Associable groups require consistent reciprocity to generate social capital. Always. Kelly, for one, used no such formula.

Kelly told me she thinks of her work as "community building" and "a flip on marketing." She even hired non-marketers because she grew tired of training her team to "unlearn marketing." Why? Because she knows that generating value--social capital--in social groups is about connecting. Not converting.

It's what moves a social group into an associated group. And those two little letters make all the difference.