In today's economy, your customers are also your audience. In addition to supporting your company by buying its products or services, they follow your Twitter account, like your  Instagram photos, and share your posts on LinkedIn.

With the growth of social media, customers themselves have become a marketing opportunity, and they base their first impressions of a brand largely on the quality of its social media content.

Though most companies use social media in some form, many of them don't realize that it's not enough just to gain legions of followers. If you've gained 100,000 followers on your company's Twitter, LinkedIn, newsletter, etc., during a product launch but then stop updating these channels regularly, you'll see your audience decline as quickly as it grew. Likewise, if you continuously bombard your audience with a string of advertisements, they will quickly start clicking the "Unfollow" button.

The key to maintaining an audience on and off social media is to regularly meet your followers where they are. Here are a few ways to do that.

1. Know Them

Much like stand-up comedians read a room to know what their audience finds funny, businesses should read social media trends and articles written by members of their audience to hone in on the needs and interests of their customers. Do they value luxury? Are they looking for advice or humor? Are they drawn to brands with a higher purpose?

When executing any marketing strategy, make sure you know what story you want to tell and for whom it is intended. Create fictional personas of your target audience members, then identify their goals, passions, and the other brands they follow. This will help you set the appropriate tone for your content.

Be able to sum up your brand's unique story in one sentence. What is it that makes your company uniquely differentiated in a way none of your competitors can claim? Having a clear storyline to follow for a clear audience will help ensure that your social media content is compelling, even when multiple people are working on it.

2. Give to Get

Like any strong relationship, your company's interaction with its audience should be mutually beneficial.

Though your latest special offer may seem like a big "give" to you, you'll need to step into your customer's shoes to ensure they see that same value. You're more likely to earn the trust of a customer by coupling your pitch with a free and useful gift. It could be a link to a helpful article related to your industry, an e-book download, a product or service giveaway, or an announcement about an upcoming exclusive event that your audience would love.

Make sure that what you're offering your audience is worth their time, or they'll stop spending time on you at all. The 80/20 rule of 80% engagement, 20% promotion is a solid benchmark to strike the right balance here.

3. Show Up

Brand loyalty is a huge factor in your company's success, and it's built on trust. Customers don't grow to trust a company that rarely see, or one that doesn't convey a clear personality, so be consistent and transparent with your customers.

If you haven't already, create a social media calendar to plan what (and when) you'll be posting on your company's channels. Content doesn't need to be added every day on every channel, but it does need to be added consistently. As customers learn that there will be something new and interesting coming from you consistently, they'll be more inclined to continue following and sharing your posts.

Gestures of appreciation are also important ways to reinforce your connection with your audience, both online and offline. Whether it's through a handwritten note or a direct message online, scheduling in some routine, personalized, one-to-one "thanks" will earn an abundance of goodwill.

Social media has made it more important than ever to value your audience and to make it enjoyable for them to interact with you. If you listen to them and actively strive to meet them where they are, you'll see your audience continue to grow in size and loyalty.

Published on: Dec 2, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.