In social media’s mainstream infancy, Facebook fan counts actually meant something. Account growth was bountiful and Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t duped advertisers into thinking they were building something valuable.

It’s now clear, the enormous fan bases constructed on Facebook – and to a lesser extent – other social sites – don’t belong to our brands. Instead, we are renting them from publishers who pillaged our budgets to benefit their information databases.

It started with a money grab that was camouflaged as an algorithm change to bring page posts into the feeds of fans who wanted them the most. There have been so many subsequent Facebook algorithm tweaks that if I had a nickel for each of them, I might be able to rent an additional Facebook fan.

Last summer’s algorithm change was the death blow for brands. Organic post reach declined from about 16 percent to two percent for unsponsored posts. I don’t expect publisher platforms to give away ad space to 16 percent of users – or even two percent of users. But as you recall, these ads don’t simply reach users – they reach fans that were paid for by brands or fans that voluntarily signed up to receive information.

How did the folks in Palo Alto get away with charging us to reach customers they already charged us to even have access to? The issue is more than a Facebook problem. Rumors previously swirled about Twitter changing its feed functionality by choosing which posts appear in what feeds. Sound familiar?

On the other end of the spectrum you have Tumblr that promises brands the ability to own followers as opposed to renting them. But we’ve already seen how this story can play out. It’s time to stop financing fan pages for the sake of account growth. And while this is not news to social media professionals, many markets remain focused on getting big rounds numbers for their channels – without thinking about the long term cost.

Time to take back our customers

Brands can’t ascertain the costs of reaching their fans and followers if the relationship with those people are owned by publishers. To position themselves for long term savings and certainty, brands must develop strategies to push fans and followers into their CRM programs.

Email marketing, SMS campaigns and loyalty reward programs are three ways brand advertisers can reach fans without a third-party publisher making the rules. And while Email marketing isn’t the sexiest form of digital advertising, it certainly beats not reaching hand raisers who signed up for your social updates.

Evaluating the purpose of social networks

Despite having less and less autonomy with customers each year, it is not yet time to leave Facebook, or any other publisher that has followed in Zuckerberg’s footsteps.  But, advertisers should re-determine the value these sites offer their clients.

Page posts, promoted Tweets and Twitter cards are efficient tactics that can impressions and engagement at scale to improve overall awareness. They can stretch media dollars further as those ads are used opt fans into SMS programs, email marketing databases or rewards programs. At which point you, the advertiser and brand have complete control on who gets what message when.

Until marketers convert their social customers into CRM programs they have greater control over, they won’t actually own their customers – they will simply be renting them from publishers.