06/11/2012 10:41 am ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

5 Ways to Humanize Your Brand

It's no secret that marketing and branding departments compete ferociously to rise above the noise generated by their peers. Regardless of size, this success comes from those companies who are able to connect with consumers both on and offline.

Now, more than ever, businesses of all shapes and sizes care deeply about the brand they create for their company. For the typical new business however, today's challenge is not to create a brand that's recognized across the globe. It's to create a brand that is human, a brand that connects with customers and turns them into brand advocates.

Just a few years ago you could claim a generic handle on Twitter for your company, toss up a Facebook page and a blog, and all of sudden your brand was "human." But it's no longer that easy. There's no back-patting for companies that have Twitter accounts. You need to create meaningful interactions with real people, and you need to find a way to scale your particular method as your network grows into the tens of thousands.

With that in mind -- here are 5 ways to humanize your brand in a noisy, competitive market.

1. Stop Focusing On Your Corporate Accounts

No matter how much you spent on your logo, or your "brand voice," it's never going to be as human as an authentic human being. So why do we spend so much time using the faceless corporate account? Savvy brands spend time educating employees on company culture and the values of the organization and then get them to engage in authentic ways. It's not an overnight process, but once employees understand the brand they are representing, they are then able to weave in their own personalities, ideas and opinions.

My favorite offline example of this is the Apple Store. The store itself, the wood tables, the products and the design aren't what makes it feel like Apple. It's the people. Apple Store employees are trained to project Apple's culture and create that sense of "it just works" when you enter the store. They're helpful, they offer answers and solutions, they shoot you straight, they give you their opinion. The people are the most visible and noticeable part of the store.

Sure, it's easy to find a product, but not as easy as it is to find someone in a blue shirt.

If you educate your employees on representing the company, then put them out in front of the brand or the products, you're clearing a path so that customers can have real, meaningful interactions with the human part of your brand.

2. Emulate the Mom N' Pop Vibe

Do you remember your local camera shop? I used to work at one of those stores and the experience has stuck with me over the years. Our customers trusted us because we put the value of "being helpful" over selling products. If someone had a problem that was unrelated to our cameras, we still tried to help.

That type of experience is profoundly human and leaves a lasting impression on anyone who feels it... and it doesn't have to stop with your Mom N' Pop camera shop. I've experienced this personally at Livefyre where we decided from the very beginning that building trusted relationships with our customers was critical.

We have a team that responds immediately to tweets, emails, and phone calls and have personal relationships with many of our customers, and not just the big guys. When customers reach out we make an effort to not only understand the problem, but why it's important. It's made a huge difference for us in creating a community of brand advocates who spread the positive word about us, even when we don't ask.

3. Take It Offline, It's Worth the Money

During the rise of social media marketing many CMOs were overjoyed with the cost effectiveness of the one-to-many concept. But I'd argue that this is a major misconception, and in fact the real way to find success in social is to create meaningful 1:1 interactions.

The catch, however, is that you can't just let those relationships linger online. Smart brands understand that there's a step beyond the initial contact on social media. They need to host events for customers, attend conferences and meetups, and provide a real-world experience for these advocates.

Five minutes of in-person interaction can create a brand advocate for life. And while it starts with one person, think about all the people they'll be speaking to in the next year. How many times will they recommend your product, or speak highly of your company? The return on the investment is enormous.

4. Stop Saying "Yes, mam"

We agree with each other too much in online conversations. It's all too common that we ignore the stuff we disagree with and respond to the content that we agree with. Real people have opinions and disagreements.

If you're not willing to disagree with someone, you're going to feel less human and more robotic. Don't you hate it when the customer service representative in the call center constantly says "yes, mam" at the beginning of every sentence? It's fake, and you resent it.

Avoid that pitfall. Sometimes the customer is wrong and the only way to solve their problem is to explain what their error was or dig for more information. It might not make for the most seamless conversation on Twitter or in your forums, but the vast majority of engaged customers are going to appreciate the fact that you are being straightforward and that you're a real person that thinks for themselves. How much more human does it get than that?

5. Don't Try to Manufacture Authenticity

We've all seen advertising campaigns featuring what brands try to promote as "real" customers. How many pharmaceutical commercials have we been subjected to with people explaining why x,y,or z drug has changed their life, lowered their cholesterol or made their legs less restless? Viewers easily realize the inauthenticity of these spots and the message usually carries little weight.

On the flip side, take a look at the popular Zappos puppet commercials that play real customer calls with puppets as the stars. The calls are obviously real and the spots feel authentic. The Zappos culture is obvious in the customer calls, with agents being friendly, chatty, and quick to help. While the agents clearly represent Zappos and project the company values, no one sounds like they are reading off a customer service script. In addition to being witty, Zappos comes off being sincere and that their commitment to great customer service is more than just a television spot.

If you try to manufacture authenticity it'll be like the first version of the Matrix -- too perfect for real humans to believe.

And perhaps that's the real trick to humanizing your brand -- don't force it. Your company is made up of humans -- real people with emotions and feelings and opinions. Hire good people, educate them on representing the brand and create a company culture that employees can be proud of. From there, they can blend in their own personalities, experiences, and voices to let your brand organically become human. Anything else will feel inauthentic.

Jenna Langer is the Director of Community and Strategy at Livefyre, a real-time conversation platform.