By Mike Handes, Social business innovation lead, IBM Australia and New Zealand

In today’s media environment, everyone truly is a critic.  Importantly for businesses, the breadth and scope of social media allow critics from all walks of life to be heard across the globe. For marketing professionals, whose business it is to define and shape the brands they work with, this new media climate appears problematic. It may seem impossible to control the things being said about one’s brand online – things which can make or break a business.

While at first new media developments may seem to provide additional challenges, it is important to remember that these developments present an opportunity for advertising and marketing professionals to take on more organic and sustainable ways of brand development. There has never previously existed the mechanism to engage with consumers and gain insights into the real perception of our brands. The new marketing role involves working to bridge gaps between consumers and businesses, rather than simply pushing products or key messages. The tools to track, analyse and respond to feedback in the online realm are readily available. All we need now are some slight changes in how we think of brands and audiences, and a willingness to adapt to new media.

The rise of online media means that brands and companies are subject to more public discussion – and critique – than ever before. People have always based their consumer decisions on word of mouth. However, the uptake of social media platforms like Twitter, Youtube and Facebook – coupled with exponential growth in the speed and availability of the Internet and Internet-connected mobile devices around the world – means that this word-of-mouth information can be spread faster and more broadly than ever before. This doesn’t just have the potential to influence marketing efforts – it’s already changing the nature of the brand itself. The most powerful brands today – Apple, Google, Facebook – owe much of their success to the viral spread of their reputation. However, calling this phenomenon viral implies that we can do little to alter its course when, in fact, we have a number of tools at our disposal which allow us to harness the power of the network.

The first of these tools that should be utilised is the ability to monitor what’s being said about your brand and where the discussion is taking place. While the online media-sphere may seem to be an anarchic realm at first, it’s important to remember that everything being said can be tracked – unlike literal word-of-mouth conversations. Monitoring tools are not only easy to implement and operate, but they effectively allow you to find out what people are saying about your brand and those of your competitors.

Being able to track online mentions of your brand will start to enable you to gain insights, but the real opportunity is by engaging in the conversation.  There are alternatives as to how to engage with your customers in the social medium, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ – but when you have a plethora of traditional and new media techniques at your disposal, who’s to know which option is right for your brand?

What needs to be recognised is that we have a conundrum in that we need to participate in the location where the community is already active. What will not work is attempting to create our own community in isolation from the already formed community. However, this may exclude many of our customers who are not members of that particular social media community. In addition, as custodians of our brand we have to be conscious of the issues of intellectual property when we are making use of a ‘free’ social media community. Who owns the content that is posted within this community and what control do we have over the usage of this content?

To maximise the opportunity for customer engagement what is required is a method of engaging with our customers in the already formed social media communities, and to compliment this with social media-style collaboration capabilities within our own online real estate. The objective is to both engage with customers in the communities where they are already active, and incorporate this conversation stream via your own web site. By taking this approach you are engaging with 100% of your customers in the way that makes sense for each individual, and you can take greater control of the conversation within the realm of your web experience and retaining ownership of the content.

Our choices should ultimately depend on the situation at hand. For example, resolving customer issues and building brand loyalty may be best done through a collaborative tool like a wiki or forum, but may also need to be supplemented with a Facebook customer service page and a Twitter account. For a tactical brand launch aimed at niche communities, a temporary micro-site or mash-up may be the most effective option.

The challenges that these multiple community domains present was a significant input into the thinking behind the development of the IBM Customer Experience Suite. We sought to bring some of the most popular and well-tested communications tools into the one unified interface. We also focused on the ability to both publish and consume content within external social media domains and within your own web presence. The benefit of this approach is that marketers and executives have a range of options within easy reach as well as ways in which to measure their success. It’s likely that such integrated toolkits will soon be the norm in the marketing and advertising businesses.

But this approach also needs to be accompanied by a more flexible approach to brand identity. Most CMOs will now admit that traditional advertising revenues are declining, with peer reviews and recommendations taking their place. Brands are no longer defined solely by the marketing agency or CEO – they are increasingly “owned” by the consumers on whom they ultimately depend for survival. This means brands are increasingly fluid, open to remixing and reinterpretation through social media and other web channels.

Marketers must push beyond the traditional “one-to-many” mindset of message distribution and become willing to accommodate shifts in aspects of the brands they manage. By directly engaging with customer feedback and operating on a grassroots level in online communities, the marketing profession can not only more efficiently shape the brands under its watch, but also earn the respect and advocacy of the consumers it seeks to serve. This rapport is critical for any branding success in the age of new media.

Most importantly of all, we need to remember that brand management has become an iterative process: it is not something which has a fixed start, middle and end. Rather, it involves paying attention to discussions and critiques online, responding to and developing on these discussions, and monitoring the results of one’s chosen methods. This process must continue for the life of the brand to ensure its longevity. Rather than simply establishing or promoting brands, we should think of ourselves as cultivating them. The metaphor of culture as a virus may have its flaws, but it recognises that in the online realm, there is indeed something organic about the way ideas spread and mutate. We already have the tools to tend to these ideas in ways which boost our businesses for the long run, but what we need now is the will and openness of mind to use them.