By Dan Schawbel

In 2005, Jeff Jarvis made every company think twice about customer service and brand management with his famous “DELL Hell” blog post. In his blog post he stated “I just got a new DELL laptop…the machine is a lemon and the service is a lie.” It is now 2008 and the conversation has been buried inside the social media playground, where citizen journalists carry a company’s reputation, more than any CMO, and customer service influences brand reputation more than ever. A recent survey by the Society for New Communications Research shows that almost 60% of participants view social media as a place to vent about customer support experiences. Although most CMOs would view this as a threat, the report also explains how 81% view blogs, online rating systems and discussion forums as places where customers gain a greater voice.

With millions of blogs and thousands of social networks, a conversation that once existed behind a locked door, now opens with social media. Thirty–seven percent of the US adult population uses social networks and there will be $1.2 billion spent on advertising on social networks this year alone (eMarketer). Even podcasting shows potential, with an audience that is projected to increase to 65 million in 2012 (eMarketer). Corporate messaging has decentralized and is made available through various channels of communication such as Twitter, blogs and Facebook. CMOs have no choice but to listen and learn.

Authenticity Matters

“Every CMO should know that not every brand is a brand people want to socialize with. You need to understand the limitations and opportunities of your brand within the audience’s mind and out in cyberspace,” says Laura Ries, President of Ries & Ries Focusing Consultants. Brands that have real values, emotions and meaning will be revered by customers and therefore will be spoken about. CMOs should strive to manage their brands so that their audience pays attention and turn customers into brand champions.

There are many new and exciting opportunities for CMOs in this web 2.0 world. John Moore, of fame, says, “Social Media helps small companies look bigger and helps big companies get smaller. Meaning, a small company can have a big presence online with customers through using social media. Conversely, a big company can get ‘smaller’ because social media connects companies to customers on a very personal level.” Social media places personal brands, that are tied to companies directly, in front of those who can impact their future. Some believe this is risky, but the smart CMOs will empower employees to carry forth the corporate message in an authentic manner.

Tips for CMOs:

Spend more time learning about social media before actually engaging.
This can be done by subscribing to many popular blogs in your space, which you can find through Technorati, Google Blog Search or by asking your PR agency or contacts. Learn who your new stakeholders and influencers are and identify ambassadors in your company that could interact with them to start conversations.

Become visible in the industry.
Whether it’s you or your direct reports, attendance at new media conferences will provide insight and best practices.

Take risks.
There are very few real social media success stories in corporate America because companies are in experimentation mode. Whether it’s a viral video, a blog, a wiki or a discussion forum, companies are looking to see how others react to their tools and strategies. The Blog Council was formed to help companies, such as Coca Cola, share failures and successes.

Command respect by being transparent.
Companies that connect with customers the same way they do with The New York Times or BusinessWeek will have a rude awakening. If you take anything from reality TV, you know that people care about authenticity and not acting. You need to start treating bloggers like real people and not press release submission services. The people that will succeed will tell bloggers exactly who they are and what their intentions are immediately.

Don’t be just another logo on a website.
Just because you brand yourself visually doesn’t mean people will care about you. I think podcasting is one of the key tactics to really connect with your audience these days. Make your business come to life and have your employees tell their stories. People remember faces and stories more than anything.

Realize that there is a shift in brand management control.
Brands have been swallowed by the end user. Now they have the privilege to spread the word, with or without an editor. Outside of the Web 2.0 bubble, social media is still relatively new. Enter at your own risk and always monitor your brand for feedback.

Dan Schawbel is a leading personal branding expert for gen-y. Dan publishes Personal Branding Magazine and Personal Branding Blog. He is also the first social media specialist at EMC2 and has seven years of experience in marketing.