When marketers talk about the different types of media, typically you’ll hear about three forms: owned, earned and paid. Owned media is controlled and managed by the marketer and includes your website, collateral, presentations and the like. Paid media is advertising – print, out-of-home, radio, broadcast, online and any other for which you pay for space. Earned media, also called public relations, is published information about your brand which comes from journalists in the form of news.

As we all know, the lines between these forms have blurred significantly, and there are new forms such as native advertising that cross over multiple platforms. But more important, these three terms do not truly encompass the fastest growing form of media – social media.

Social isn’t paid. Your community manager gets paid, you pay for the tools you use to listen and measure and report, and you pay for the events and programs that you build social campaigns around, but the actual channels themselves are free.

Social isn’t earned. You do have to earn your audience by providing them with valuable content and interesting engagement, but the actual mechanism of information getting published online isn’t something you have to earn by making the information newsworthy, as you need to do with public relations.

And social certainly isn’t owned. Facebook could change their algorithm, eliminate a category of posts, get hacked or go out of business any time, taking your data, your content and your audience with them. The same is true of Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and every other social channel. You should never make the mistake of believing that social is an owned platform; it could be fatal to your brand.

Social media is the fourth media. Neither paid, earned nor owned, but shared. You and your audience share the conversation and the content with equal participation. You don’t know, what anyone is going to post on your Facebook page or tweet about your brand. There can be whole conversations going on about your brand that are complimentary or hideously critical, and you need to understand right now that you cannot limit or control them. If you try, you’ll find out very quickly why this is a terrible idea. There’s even a term of art for the cataclysm that occurs when you do this – it’s called the Streisand Effect, and if you google it you’ll find out how the diva herself (and many others before and since) had to learn this lesson the hard way.

More and more marketers are recognizing the power of social channels, and the presence of brands on social is growing accordingly. The fast growth of social media hasn’t escaped the attention of your customers, either. They’re probably on it already, and they’re either actively having conversations about brands or at least seeing these conversations on their news feeds. They may be talking about you, or their friends and colleagues are talking about you, or they’re seeing posts on other sites and blogs they follow which refer to conversations about you. If you’re not joining in on these conversations, you are missing a powerful opportunity to make positive impressions and build your audience. Worse yet, if customers are looking for you, a lack of responsiveness will hurt you.

The term shared media doesn’t mean you’re creating a channel to share with your audience. It means you’re going to where they are already and sharing the conversation with them – giving you a priceless opportunity to engage, to provide customer service, and to build the value of your brand.