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The Marketing Executive Network Group (MENG) is a community of C level marketing and sales executives. It is a valuable resource for business leaders dedicated to building high performance careers and companies.

One of the outstanding characteristics of MENG is the unselfish volunteer-ism of professional support among thought leaders in the various disciplines that make up marketing and sales technologies.

In that context MENG launched a Social Media Counsel of Advisors. They collectively ran a (free for MENG members) webinar on business application of social media that focused on Twitter. The live program was insightful. However, one question I had concerning strategies small companies could deploy to deal with the probable damaging commentary from dissatisfied customers, competitors, former employees or even social activists. I Tweeted my frustration that this question was not answered and received a direct Tweet message from Lisa Petrilli a MENG member directing me to a terrific blog by another MENGer, Mack Collier on the subject.

That discussion focused on how companies strategically could use social media to redress real and substantial product or service issues, whereas my concern brought on by client presidents, was what to do with rogue comments.

This is when another conversation started with Amber Naslund founder of Altitude Branding switching from Twitter to e-mail due to the depth of the discussion. I want to share that conversation because it underscores the professional activism of MENG and the real ability of social media to sponsor meaningful conversations and healthy on line acquaintances:

Cal - Question 1:  Strategically, how do small businesses address inevitable spam messages about products / services that are inconsistent with the significant majority of facts and customer satisfaction ratings?

Amber - Reply: First of all, I'm glad to hear you say "inevitable" because they most certainly are something you cannot avoid, and can actually be valuable to you.  Here's a few notes on what I consider when evaluating negative comments:

1) Are they specific? Specific complaints can point to a shortcoming in product or service that needs to be addressed. If that comment comes directly from a customer using your service, you should treat it with the same timeliness, attentiveness, and seriousness you would if that person went through other customer support channels.

2) Are they owned? I'm not in support of allowing anonymous comments on things, mostly because if an attack is going to be mounted, someone should be accountable for that (except in the obvious cases of things much more serious than the online or business world, like being put in personal danger of harm). If you know who made the comment, find out some context about who they are, and address them directly and by name, providing full disclosure of your own identity as well.

3) Never feed a fire. Judgment prevails here. You have to be able to tell when comments are deliberately starting a war or trying to be inflammatory. In most cases, if those comments are being waged by someone identifiable, I simply respond and say something like "Thanks for sharing your concerns with us; I'd like very much to talk with you further and see how we can help. I'd be happy to reach out via an email address you provide, or you can reach me at amber@radian6.com anytime." This diffuses the situation a bit, takes the conversation to a more private channel, but demonstrates publicly that you're acknowledging it and addressing it.

Same goes for competitors. If the competition is openly making negative statements, you can choose to refute any factual inaccuracies, but do so with diplomacy and by taking the high road. Something like "Appreciate your comments, Jeff, but you have some misinformation about our product. In actuality, XXX...." If the comments are opinions rather than something you can address calmly and objectively, it's better to acknowledge with something like "Thanks for your feedback, Jeff. We appreciate having outspoken colleagues in our space and look forward to seeing your additional contributions to the industry." More flies with honey and all of that. The community can see who is acting like an adult, and who is slinging barbs for no good reason.

4) Have a comment policy on your own properties that allows for removal of comments that are defamatory, offensive, or otherwise libelous. Do NOT make the mistake of deleting all negative comments, but this gives some recourse if things are vulgar, personal attacks, or otherwise deliberately out of line.

5) When possible, for comments that actually have merit, round back with the individual in the forum where the comment was originally made, and let them know what you're doing to address it. Nothing impresses folks better than seeing not only that you heard their criticism, but that you took it to heart and are committed to doing something with it.

Cal - Question 2: How do small companies staff social media initiatives?

Amber - Reply: That all depends on what your social media effort entails. Are you just listening and gathering information or are you actively engaging and responding? Are you just centered around your brand or are you participating in industry discussion? Are you just conversing, or are you also creating content?

In general, your listening/monitoring efforts for an active brand should take a couple of hours per day. The amount of time you dedicate to engagement - say, conversing on Twitter or on your Facebook page or LinkedIn Group - is up to you, but I'm going to say that it'll take at least 2-4 hours a day of time, whether exclusive to one person or distributed. The more engaged you are, the more active your networks will be, and the more maintenance and cultivation they'll require.

You're definitely going to need at least one full time equivalent in terms of hours, maybe more, if you're serious about adding social media to the mix. I'd also recommend evaluating and auditing your current marketing and outreach efforts so that social media can be integrated, and not be a standalone element (they should all work together and in a complimentary fashion). And I would recommend that the people you delegate to handle this be mature business professionals with an understanding of your organizations goals, customer attitudes, brand presence, and the like. This is a business management role first, with a specialization or a focus in social media. But you definitely don't want to delegate this to your intern; it really demands a more mature, seasoned business person if it's ever going to become a well-oiled part of your business processes.

Social media is an ongoing commitment, like customer service. You're not "done" with it, you maintain your presence and adapt to how your networks and communities respond to you. That's why it's important to not only dedicate proper resources, but to be sure they're individuals that are personable, business savvy, and committed to the long-term health of your relationships with your customers, as that's what engaging through social media is all about.

Amber

Now is a time of change. President Obama has said so and it evident in everyday news.

It is also a seminal time when the recent historic momentum was toward big companies and big governments is cresting and the impetus to devolution is emerging. The question is two fold: 1) Is this observation true and 2) What does this have to do with realizing sustainable wealth from a family business as its cornerstone?

I think so and the fact that Washington is still amassing power and centralizing the apogee of this era. But as of September 2008 the era of huge corporations with power to enjoy economic autonomy from national governments began falling apart. GM, Chrysler, Citi and other institutions began breaking apart in order to survive We are discovering the diseconomies of scale and the evolution of greater opportunities for innovative, fast moving smaller companies.

That's where the Dandelion effect comes in.  In a highly provocative article in WIRED, "Waste is Good", Chris Anderson talked about the power of waste:" When scarce resources become abundant, smart people treat them differently, exploiting them rather than conserving them. It feels wrong, but done right it can change the world".

In our blog "Innovation Basics for Presidents" we talked about quantity leads to quality (of new ideas) and looking to nature as a catalyst to innovation. The dandelion effect - named by writer Cory Doctrow - reprises the basic notion that nature is wasteful in search of better life. It is wasteful because scattershot strategies are the best way to explore uncharted territory. The dandelion tries to fill every crack in every rock with dandelions and does not try to get a perfect copy of itself. That way it finds the best growth environment. So too with business ideas.

For business owners the time is now to instill a culture of innovation and pursue new opportunities during these watershed years. Just as cost control is a key discipline or supply chain management, so is innovation in terms of wealth creation.

Returning to centralization of power in Washington, in a  compelling essay by Paul Starobin in WSJ "Divided We Stand" http://online.wsj.com/article /SB10001424052970204482304574219813708759806.html forcefully argues that the devolution of USA is an incipient trend: "Devolved America is a vision faithful both to certain postindustrial realities as well as to the pluralistic heart of the American political tradition...a tradition betrayed by  creeping centralization of power in Washington...".

He asks us to "...Picture an America that is run not, as now, by a top-heavy Washington autocracy, but in freewheeling style, by an asemblage of largely autonomous regional replublcs reflecting the eclectic economic and cultural character of the society."

I believe these are mega trends business owners need to think about. I think we need to be prepared to ride the wave of change by fostering innovative, highly adaptable customer focused companies. This is the platform to create and sustain wealth during the 21st Century.