Marketers are increasingly turning to social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in an attempt to promote their products or services. They are lured by industry success stories showing how social media is helping to increase market share for everything from fashion labels and restaurants through to electronic gadgets.

What many fail to consider however, is that for every positive story there are also negatives. Just look at the highs and lows of some recent movie releases. Revenues for the Sacha Baron Cohen film, Bruno were significantly impacted by critical Twitter reviews posted by movie goers during the films opening weekend. Later in the year the opposite occurred in the U.S when social media buzz helped to set new box office revenue records on the release of the low budget horror movie, Paranormal Activity.

RightNow Technologies recently polled more than 500 Australians to understand their attitudes and practices relating to social media. It found that nearly one fifth of consumers have posted a negative review on a company’s website and/or have have posted comments on Facebook. Meanwhile, following a negative customer experience, 11% have joined a group on Facebook opposed to the company responsible. Others blog, tweet and locate negative videos about the company on YouTube and send them to their friends and family. It can all happen very quickly and very publicly.

Understand the basics…

So how can your organisation protect itself from the possible downside of social media?

The first thing is to accept that you cannot control the social web. You can contribute, you can respond and you may be able to influence, but you cannot own the topic, tone or conversations that go on.

Secondly, it helps to try to understand why any negativity is appearing. The RightNow research made it clear that whatever course of action Australians take to voice their disapproval, the overriding reason they publicise their poor experiences is to warn others about the pitfalls of doing business with an organisation. Some want to vent their anger or disappointment, while others also want to see if public criticism will help encourage the organisation to take remedial action.

By analysing and understanding the different reasons why consumers take the action they do, it becomes possible to plan a social network communication strategy for individuals that considers tone and sentiment and then apply the appropriate action.

If it all sounds too difficult, be warned that the research suggests ignoring negative consumer discussions is not an option if you want to retain your customers. Nearly a quarter of online Australians have boycotted an organisation after reading a negative comment on the social web about how that organisation treats its customers.

… then get proactive

Just like any other marketing communications activity, planning is crucial. Before launching into the world of Facebook or Twitter be clear on your motivation and determine what you wish to accomplish. Is this a strategic foray into social media to build brand advocates or are you trying to counter negativity?

Decide where responsibility for social media should sit. Is it a marketing owned activity or would it be best run as a blog by a technical development guru? Whoever you choose, provide them with guidelines to help them build a consistent and positive picture of your organisation.

Familiarise yourself with the blogs, fan sites, industry forums and so forth that mention your company, brand or products. Listening to their tone and content allows you to get a feel for the sites that will welcome your participation and for the ones where involvement can only prove counter productive. Check out competitor sites to see how they handle their social presence.

When ready, create your group on Facebook or a site on Twitter and begin posting. Social media is largely about personality, so keep it interesting and let some character show.

The ongoing conversations will require continual evaluation. It isnt necessary to respond to every posting or comment especially if it will only feed a negative rant. Hopefully the majority of comments about your company will be positive and your role will focus on sharing information such as upcoming developments or promotions.

Be prepared for occasions where postings describe product or customer service issues as this is where a smart company can use social media to turn around the situation. By quickly offering support or resolving the problem you can positively influence not only that particular customer but also any other consumers who may be listening.

The social web can be challenging and unpredictable, but with a little effort, it can also be extremely rewarding. By cultivating positive sentiment among consumers active on the social web theres a real opportunity for organisations to harness its transparency and extend relations with existing customers while reaching new ones. By carefully planning and managing their interactions, organisations have a huge opportunity to influence, collaborate with, and invigorate their consumer-base.