In the Purple Cow, Seth Godin states that "consumers with needs are the ones most likely to respond to your solutions". This speaks volumes to me. If you are marketing your product/service in the social media space, this is one of the most critical factors that will most likely determine the eventual success or failure of your campaign.
What your target consumer desires or needs should not be based on assumption, or a blind faith that your product is so amazingly life-changing you can simply put it out there and they will 'come'. When it comes to social media, an awareness of your consumers, how they function offline as well as online, what is missing from their conversation - are all critical to how you market your product.
Get involved. The only way to know what makes a community tick is to go and find the conversation. Integral to this is a need to respect the consumer and the space they inhabit. As a social media marketer, this is one of the best lessons you can learn. It is not a quick win, but if you get it right, it's a big one. By immersing yourself within different communities online, you should slowly be able to gauge the consumer need and see if your product/service/brand fits in a way that can address it. If it doesn't, don't force it. Accept that you got it wrong, learn from it and move on.
As a marketer you have to know that your relationship with the product you're representing will always be different to that of the consumer. You can do everything right in how you find and approach a community, but nothing beats getting inside the head of the influencers. What Godin terms 'the sneezers'. It's up to you find these key influencers online and find a way to talk to them. UK social media agency We Are Social got this right recently with their campaign for Remington haircare products. They found the right 'sneezers' in the space, distributed some free samples and the reviews followed.
If you find something interesting, don't keep it to yourself. Social media marketers are the bridge between the company and the consumers. We all know by now that social media doesn't exist in a vacuum. Insights you've gained from The Conversation should be passed on to the product development team, customer services, web design, sales reps - anyone in the organisation that would benefit from the information you've got. Likewise you should be passing back what these people are saying, to the community online. This will make for a better product, a more streamlined communication process and (if done right) a happier audience.
Know your place within the community. Accept that you are there as a guest, an observer. You are the kid that no-one wants to talk to. Figure out what makes you remarkable and start the conversation.