If companies needed any more reasons to get off the sidelines and start thinking about social media…

Reason #1: Staying Ahead of New FTC Regulations

The recently announced FTC guidelines on testimonials in advertising provide the first specific guidance from government on endorsements and disclosure in social media. Bob Pearson from the WeissComm Group suggests companies will be held more accountable for the behavior of their employees, so they should familiarize themselves with the regulations and ensure they take steps to limit their liability. In effect, companies will no longer be able to skirt (or flaunt) informal Web etiquette and will be held responsible for their online communication activities. Bob suggests all companies – big or small – follow this short checklist:

1. Require truthfulness and disclosure in all social media outreach

2. Monitor the conversation and correct misstatements

3. Create social media policies (with clear transparency and disclosure rules) and training programs

[Full disclosure: Bob is a friend and my former boss at Dell.]

Reason #2: Getting Ready for Real-Time Search

In recent weeks, there’s been plenty of online discussion about the emergence (and importance) of real-time search, which captures live updates on networks like Twitter and Facebook. A recent New York Times article posits that announcements by Google and Microsoft that their search platforms will include Twitter is just the latest evidence of this trend. (FYI: Facebook public updates will soon be available on Microsoft’s Bing.) Though the NYT article focuses on the potential revenue implications of real-time search, companies would do well to also study the PR impact of this trend on their own search results.  BusinessWeek recently posted a good summary on this topic.

What I thought was the most insightful take on this issue came from Charlene Li at Altimeter, who in her post on the topic writes: This trend towards micro media requires companies to pay attention to the real-time and social web for marketing, support, and competitive strategies. Here’s why. First, Google and Bing will filter search results based partly on timing and authority (as well as location.) Li argues this means consumers will more easily be able to influence search results through Twitter content, links and re-tweets. Conversely, companies will no longer be able to rely on their traditional page ranking, fueled by their SEO strategies. So even for companies not active on Twitter, their customers (or critics) can more easily influence search results related to the company in question. Li suggests a recipe to address this shift in search strategy:

  • Develop a nimble, comprehensive listening strategy that includes social networks and incorporates internal processes, roles as well as robust analytical tools
  • Change the marketing mindset that says generating more positive (self-serving) content will tilt the search balance, since the search filters will leave out irrelevant messages with no authority or following
  • Marketers must focus on building relationships with people who have influence and authority on networks like Twitter – which means fostering relevant discussions with consumers and followers/friends

Even for companies with a defensive mindset who hesitate to jump into social media, these and other developments suggest their time as spectators is coming to an end.