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In the past few weeks, I’ve been asked the same question by a number of large brands:

“What’s the best way for us to incorporate social networking into our brand strategy?”

I think that there are a few ways to answer this question. First, social networking isn’t for everyone. Knowing what will and won’t work for your brand, your company, and your customers upfront is critical.

Social networks require companies to cede a certain level of control to the people using your products and services. It’s not the clean, regulated world of television. It’s much more similar to holding a live event where the members of your social network will be exposed to actual human behavior in sometimes messy ways.

Even with moderation – which is critical to any social network – a company needs to accept a certain level of party crashing and bad behavior to take on social networking successfully. If your company is uncomfortable with this, then you should reinvest your people and money in other things right now.

Why? Because a social network is not a website. It’s not one-way out to the world. You can’t control everything on a social network. Setting that as a goal will mean you’ll either create a floundering, unsuccessful network or drive yourself crazy trying to control it.

For example, one company I knew wanted to moderate everything – I mean, absolutely everything – added to their network. While this is technically possible to do, it was also a telltale sign to me that the network was doomed.

Social networks are about dynamic, immediate connections. If everything has to be moderated in order to “protect” people pre-emptively from bad behavior, the network will never get off the ground. It can’t build momentum. It will be eaten up by the growing number of places online today that do allow instantaneous connections and assume the best in people. You are competing against them for people’s time. The days of a “captive” audience are over.

Here’s an initial checklist that may give you and your company a better sense of whether social networking – or sponsoring social networks – is right for you:

  • Are you willing to listen and shift your strategy based on how your members want to interact with your brand?
  • Are you comfortable with your members interpreting your brand in their own unique ways?
  • Are you comfortable with your members taking your content and remixing it in ways you only peripherally control?
  • Are you comfortable with people voicing criticisms – constructive or otherwise – of your brand in the context of your own social network?
  • Are you prepared for a two-way conversation where members of your team are directly interacting with people on your network?
  • Are you prepared for community policing and deleting offensive materials after the fact?
  • Are you comfortable with a certain segment of your customer segment voicing concerns about “unsavory elements” on your network?
  • Are you prepared to “feed the beast” with new features, new content, new ideas, new conversations, and immediate responses to issues?

If you are comfortable with these things, then integrating social networking into your brand has huge benefits…

  • When you create a way for passionate and loyal fans to engage with you on their terms, they will do so en masse.
  • With a social network, you capture an unfiltered view into how people perceive your brand in real-time. You have an early warning system when you do something right, do something wrong, or when the people using your products or services want something from you. This scares the bejeezes out of most companies. I would argue it’s a critical competitive advantage in a world where products and services are changing so darn fast.
  • Even if you cede control to your members, you can guide the conversation on your own social network in ways that you can’t when you are reactively responding to blog posts around the web.
  • You might not “control” your network in the classic sense, but you can certainly benefit from your network financially if you are comfortable with the good, the bad, and the ugly of running a social network.

Social networking is about creating a bottoms up groundswell where passionate people can authentically join and connect with others around the things that they care about. In most cases, these are not the things that you, as a large brand, want them to care about.

The vast majority of the world, including your customers, don’t care as much about your corporate brand or strategy as much as you do. That’s not a knock to your brand strategy. It serves an important role in creating a world class brand experience. It just means that when it comes to social networking, it’s critical to look at it with a different lense.

It’s not about top down control. It’s about understanding at the lowest possible level how people want to interact with you. Once you know that, then – with services like Ning – it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to put the plan into action. I can guarantee you it will be a little more wild ride than you’re used to. In the end, though, you won’t know what you did without it.