You constantly extend your virtual handshake in every possible direction... yet no one embraces it. Very few people follow, connect, or "like" you.

Why?  Simple: You're looking in the wrong mirror.

This is the fourth in my series where I choose a topic, pick someone smarter than me (finding smarter people is turning out to be way easier than my ego prefers), and we trade emails. To find other articles in the series, go here, here, and here.

This time I talked to Shama Kabani, the founder and CEO of The Marketing Zen Group and the author of The Zen of Social Media Marketing.

Shama's premise: Most social media marketing efforts fail because, at a fundamental level, people don't use social media to connect with businesses--or even with each other. People use social media to showcase their own identities.

Jeff: You realize this premise is completely opposite from what most people think? Social media is supposed to be about connection, not reflection. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Shama: And that's why most businesses get poor results. A social site is as much a digital mirror as it is a social platform. Connection starts with understanding the meaning and impact of that reflection.

Jeff: You're going to have to explain that.

Shama: I did my graduate thesis on Twitter back when it only had a few thousand users. My first questions were, "Why would people tweet? Why would they share what they are doing?"

While I was doing the research I had this light bulb moment. My original hypothesis was that we use social media to connect with each other, but I found the primary reason we use social media is to showcase our own identities.

Jeff: So we're all a bunch of narcissists.

Shama: It's not narcissistic at all. It's like in kindergarten (in a good way): You're having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the kid next to you says he likes peanut butter and jelly, then he says he likes blue crayons, and you like blue crayons... that's how we make friends and become who we are. We showcase our identities, and based on the reflection or reaction of other people, we tweak our identities.

The same is true when you're a teenager and, say, your friends like rock music. They wear certain clothes... so you do, too.

The only difference is that now all that is online. Think about Facebook profiles; Facebook really gets the idea that people, first and foremost, want to showcase who they are. Social media is like a mirror we hold up to show how we are unique and special.

It's like we're decorating the inside of our lockers again. We just transferred that to the Web.

The platforms have changed, but the principles of how we behave and how we express ourselves? Not really.

Jeff: I get that. A friend loves to add stuff to his Facebook timeline. I tease him because he acts like a painter finishing a masterpiece. When he's done he's a little too pleased with himself. (I know you said it's not narcissistic, but in his case I'm not so sure.)

But I'm not sure how understanding that helps a business improve its social media marketing efforts.

Shama: Here's how. Most companies still focus on the secondary aspect: Getting them to connect with us. Too many companies say, "Business is about marketing and branding. We will create a brand. We will tell people who we are."

That's backwards. Realizing that social media is a mirror forces companies to think not about what they want their brand to be, but what their brand says about the individual.

And that's why a cupcake shop can rack up more likes than a major corporation. Liking the little cupcake shop down the street says something about me as an individual: Maybe they only use organic ingredients and that's important to me. Or maybe they donate a portion of their revenue to a charity I support. In some way, that cupcake shop is a reflection of my identity and an extension of my identity brand. It reflects something I see in myself.

Liking a big company... what does that do for me? Not much. What does that say about me? Nothing.

Jeff: That's probably why I've never felt compelled to "like" a big company. (Maybe that's why I don't even have a Facebook account?)

Plus there's the association factor. If I like a fast-food chain I'm not going to declare it publicly. I'm not going to like an athlete's foot powder or a dandruff shampoo or adult diapers. (Not that I need any of those!) That would not only say something about me, it would say too much about me.

But I would like my local bike shop because they lead local bicycle advocacy efforts, help build new trails... and they're great guys. So liking them would say something I would feel good about saying.

Shama: For a business, what matters most is not what your brand says about you--it's what your brand says about the people you want to interact with.

The heart of building a community, whether you're a B2B or a B2C, is recognizing what that community cares about. It's not manipulative, it's not sneaky--it's the most authentic way to brand your business and grow a following online.

It's not manipulative because it's about what you do, not what you say. It's about what you do and what that says about the people who like you for doing it.

Jeff: I see and hear stuff like "Like us on Facebook!" or "Follow us on Twitter!" all over the place, and I always wonder what the business is thinking. Why would I? You haven't given me a reason.

And I'm immediately turned off when I have to "like" a business to get a discount or special offer. But maybe that's just me.

I wouldn't feel a connection to the company. It would just be a a transaction. "Here's my like, now give me my discount."

Shama: There's a much better approach that doesn't require incentives or promotions. (Although there is nothing wrong with either.)

I was speaking at a real estate conference and a number of people said they were frustrated because they had created social media platforms for their real estate businesses and nothing was happening. The problem was they had sites... but those sites didn't say anything about the people they wanted to engage.

But if they changed their focus and created a site like, say, "Why Dallas Rocks," and it was powered by Dallas Realtors... then you can get likes because it says a lot about me: I like my city, I like my community... and I like you for getting that.

The same is true for a wedding site. Say you sell bridal gowns--how many people are going to follow you? Change the focus. Create a site like "All About Brides," or "I Can't Believe I'm Engaged," or "OMG I'm Engaged!"... powered by Downtown Bridal.

Which will get more likes? The site focused on showing people what you are, or the site focused on what brides feel about themselves? Brides will want to connect with you when they know you get them.

Jeff: But what if I'm in a service business? What if my business isn't so much about products but about, for want of a better way to put it, me?

Shama: The same principle applies; in fact, when people are the focus it can be even more powerful.

That's why letting people connect with the CEO works so well. It's an extension of your brand. It's a relationship. Who would you rather connect with, a company or a person?

And that's why I resisted creating a page for our agency for a long time. I finally caved in when we decided to use it for customer service and answering questions. But it proves my point: I have over 200k Facebook subscribers, and our agency page has a few thousand. People like being able to connect with the CEO.

People want to connect with people. When you connect with a person at a business, it's like you know someone there. That's really powerful.

Jeff: Now put it into action. Tell me what to do.

Shama: The key is to forget what you want to say about yourself. Think about what your customers want to say and feel about themselves.

1. Start with your customers.

Forget your brand. What do your customers see as their brand?

Forget your messaging. What is the messaging of your audience?

For example, there's an Italian restaurant nearby. The interior is splashed with pictures of the owners, their families, and generations of people who have eaten there. They encourage customers to put their pictures up. When you walk in you instantly know they care about family, about tradition... you can tell family means everything to them.

People who care about family connect with the restaurant because it says something about how they see themselves.

Think in broader terms. How do your customers see themselves? What is important to them?

2. Create a platform that integrates your customers' brand with what you offer.

One of our clients runs chiropractic clinics. Many of their patients were injured in accidents. So they built a "don't text and drive" platform. They've created an entire campaign around preventing accidents. They frequently speak at schools and community events. They even created a pledge people can feature on their profiles to show it's something they care about. It's like bumper stickers on steroids.

The community cares about protecting their kids and, be honest, adults, because everyone is guilty of texting while they're driving. Our client cares about it, too. And they prove it.

Or take American Express: Who would join a social network for a credit card company? No one. So Amex built Open Forum and created a community for small business people who need information and resources. They do crazy numbers. If a credit card company can do it... you can too.

Determine what you stand for, blend that with what your customers care about, and find the right balance point.

3. Be part of a movement.

Marketing has always been about you: Your needs and your objectives.

Of course the goal is to get leads and sales, but with social media you should look at something bigger, become a part of a movement... be part of something your audience cares about.

Then you get more than bottom line results: You get to be a part of something bigger and more meaningful.

The Dallas YMCA did a campaign featuring stories about their members and how the Y changed their life. In effect they created a collage of beautiful stories and pictures. Those stories mean something to people. We all want to change our lives for the better and to be around people who feel the same way.

Bottom line: Don't mistake the medium for the message. That's not what it is.

Find a way to be of service--and to be a part of something bigger than your business.