Social media has gone mainstream and businesses are working hard to sort out strategies that make sense. Social media tactics help companies reach elusive markets and protect their reputations among their customers, investors and journalists. When an organization impresses the online social networks, rewards can be large and immediate; if they fail, recovery can be a struggle. Many realize that customers’ control is expanding and can derail expensive advertising efforts in the click of a mouse. To succeed in this new playing field often requires a culture change and many companies remain in denial, as sorting out the numerous myths and theories can be a daunting task on its own. So what should you do within your company?

These issues were on the minds of the 70 professionals gathered for Lexington Ad Club’s “Digital Dialogues on Social Media” last month. I was invited to join two other expert panelists, Nick Huhn and Jason Falls, to explain terminology, examine case studies, and answer questions about this new field. “A thirst for knowledge was evident,” noted moderator Bill Dotson of Webmedley, “The turnout was strong despite little promotion and we didn’t have enough time to cover all of the topics. I think there are opportunities for more down the road.”

“Businesses want to get their arms around this,” observed panelist Jason Falls, director of social media with Louisville’s Doe Anderson Agency, “Some can position themselves as experts in their industry, which is far more powerful than just talking about your company. Explaining this set off light bulbs in some attendees’ heads, andzI love that.” The perceived loss of control brought by social media is chief among corporate concerns. “Companies were never really in control,” Falls explained in response. “They just had no way to hear conversations around thousands of water coolers. Now we have one big cooler for everyone. But more than being scary, it offers opportunities to understand what customers are saying and why.”

As eager as many are to get involved, Web Pioneer and panelist Nick Huhn wisely advised listening before leaping. “Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of options available in social media, because not all customers are participating in every outlet. Take the time to seek the right audience, consider your objectives, and get involved in an appropriate manner.”

When the discussion turned to blogging, it was my turn at the mic and the power of connections was emphasized. In business, blogs are best when there is a lively discourse and valuable references to other sources. There must be a two-way flow of posts, comments and links. These interactions can impact influence in an industry, and that opens doors to more exposure through both traditional and non-traditional media. Blogs have been shown to directly affect search engine ranking, too. Blogging and and search engine optimization efforts are joined at the hip. An influential blog is one path to the top of the rankings. Google has made it clear that they like to rank authoritative blogs that result in a good user experience, because this leads to value for Google’s shareholders.

Newer online phenomena, such as Twitter, were discussed at length. Twitter is a micro-blogging network started in 2006 that reached its billionth “tweet” milestone last month. It operates on the platform of users posting personal “updates” (140 characters or less) online, which are available for their network to view. “At first glance, it looks like the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen,” observed Falls, “but once you look closer, the opportunity emerges.”

Often compared to a cocktail party with thousands of simultaneous conversations clustered around events, interests, brands and ideas, participants have woven Twitter into daily life. A direct connection to groups of mobile, highly connected and conversational individuals offers the potential in public relations and customer service efforts. Brands can watch for specific conversations to occur, and jump in to help customers having difficulty. “But they’re not just any customer –– they’re the ones using Twitter, which means they’ve got a loud megaphone to sing your praises. You cannot buy that kind of advertising.”

As the night moved forward, it became clear that choosing a solid strategy for using social media often follows common sense –– give people what they want, and make it easy for them to talk about you. For example, waiting for that big “viral hit” may not be the best approach. Nick Huhn agrees, “Hits are rare, making it risky to depend on it. I’d rather have 100 base hits than one home run.” Jason Falls pointed out that while most things aren’t “viral” in nature, “things explode when interesting enough that people want to spread them. This is rare. If you want to win, produce great stuff that’s easy to talk about and let people share it.”

This article edited by Tom Martin