I was at a networking/information event last week sponsored by the Eastern Technology Council. The event was one of those ubiquitous “how to use Social Media and Web 2.0 Tools for Business” seminars which are all the rage these days. The topics were wide-ranging and inevitably embraced a discussion for setting up Facebook presences for business. At one point, one of the attendees stood and asked the inevitable question, “How do we control the conversations taking place on our Facebook Fan page and what do we do if our customers start saying unflattering things about us?” At another recent business meeting I was at, I was reading about a client’s plan to roll out a new product. The strategy behind both the product and the launch was that the recession had created opportunities as well as challenges and that this particular company had quickly developed a suite of products uniquely suited to current market conditions. They wanted to create the sense that the company was responding to their selling landscape with agility and smarts. I looked at their strategy — pitched as fast paced and very “guerilla” — and noted that it relied heavily on regular press releases and updates to their website. I commented, “Gee, this would lend itself really well to various social media platforms… Instead of sending out old style press releases, why don’t you just have Jim, the Sales Manager, start writing regular blog posts about his progress rolling out this product and start a Facebook Fan Page where you could post daily reports on all manner of successes (and not) related to this initiative?” At that point, the client explained that they were worried about (vaguely stated) liability concerns and that the resources, internally, weren’t there to go the social media route. These two situations, of course, represent the conundrum businesses wishing to embrace social media must come to grips with… I’m not really in the business of writing in-depth, multi-page critical thinking pieces about social media. Heck, that’s why I write blog entries, instead of books. Luckily, though, there’s a book I’ve already talked about which does address these issues in much greater detail. That book is Social Media Is A Cocktail Party: Why You Already Know The Rules Of Social Media Marketing and, essentially, I’ve just referenced Jim Tobin’s central idea in the book. That idea is this: social media represents a game-changing shift in the way companies engage their customers. It forces engagement by allowing the customer to talk about your brand to lots of people. All at once. It also creates the opportunity for businesses to engage directly with their customers. Of course, though, those opportunities can only be leveraged by companies willing to have honest, open dialogues with their customers. Which brings us back to the first seminar attendee’s question about “controlling the conversation.” The bottom line is that, you can’t really control the dialogue you’re having with your clients on social media sites but, what you can do is engage with them, set the record straight (if you feel the customer is spreading misinformation) and, ultimately, learn from any misgivings or misfortune their experience with your brand may have been responsible for. And, finally, remember this: the up sides of social media far outweigh the potential pitfalls. For every one person out there complaining about your brand, there will be countless other brand evangelists singing your praises. That fact alone, combined with the invaluable feedback gleaned from fans sharing their insights, likes and concerns about your brand create an environment which looks much more like marketing Heaven than marketing Hell.