In a world where everyone is enamored with social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and GenY’s obsession with texting is widely reported, it might be hard to believe that for many people, face-to-face communication is still the most valued. And that’s an important fact for your small business to think about as you explore ways to connect with and engage people who matter to your success and growth.

This is not to say that social media doesn’t have a role; it does. But using these tools to replace, rather than augment, face-to-face communication channels could be detrimental.

When it comes to doing business, from ancient times to the digital age, relationships matter. You know this intuitively, but it can be tempting to resort to less personal means of connecting with others. Avoid that temptation!

J. Walker Smith, the executive chairman of The Future’s Company, based in Atlanta, tells us that we are living in a “kinship economy” where relationships mean more than they ever have. In a blog post he says, “The power of kinship is the fuel that will fire the foreseeable future of commerce, culture, creed and, indeed, the whole character of life itself.” Social networks have, he says, “put kinship on the radar of brand marketers.”

Many marketers seek to generate kinship through social media but may be missing an important element says Ed Keller and Brad Fay, the authors of The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace (Free Press, 2012). Communicating face-to-face, they propose, has more influence and impact than social media, traditional media and brand messaging.

Intuitively, this makes sense. People like connecting with people and they generally prefer to do that in real time—across a table, a desk or a counter. Over the last decade, we have been lured into the social media habit in pursuit of followers, friends and fans, sometimes at the expense of building real relationships between real people.

Unlike large corporations, small businesses have a decided advantage here. The potential orbit of stakeholders is usually nearby and relatively manageable. The ability for small businesses to establish these “kinship relationships” is decidedly a differentiation point between them and their larger competitors.

The key, though, is ensuring that these relationships are developed, nurtured and strengthened through a spirit of inclusiveness. It’s not just about connecting; it’s about listening—and, ultimately, understanding other voices. The process of inviting the voices of business partners, customers and clients into your conversations is a healthy way to create engagement and build brand loyalty. Not only because you have a great product or service, but because they know and trust you. That’s a benefit that few large organizations can leverage.

But small businesses can. Here’s how:

  • Make time to connect with and listen to your key customers, partners or prospects.
  • Commit to creating a culture of openness and inclusiveness.
  • Get your employees talking in company gatherings.
  • Demonstrate in visible ways that you have listened and learned and, whenever possible, close the loop by sharing how what you learned has impacted your thinking or future actions.
  • Recognize the significant value that experts outside of your small organization can bring to bear on your business—seek out and listen in areas where you may not have expertise.