©istockphoto.com / james steidl

©istockphoto.com/james steidl

With the rise of social media, message control is firmly in the hands of consumers. Marketers and PR people once felt like they were in charge and developed mission statements, “About” pages and press-release boilerplates, but the notion of corporate control in a 24-hour YouTube/IM world is absurd.

The idea of customers and employees spreading “marketing messages” via blogs, forums, chat rooms and social-media sites terrifies old-school marketers. For decades, companies have left messaging to a handful of authorized and highly trained spokespeople, such as their public-relations director and their CEO. Companies have used one-way communications – mostly advertising and press releases – to issue formal announcements and have generally forbidden rank-and-file employees from saying anything at all.

Social-media tools have enabled anybody (company insiders as well as customers and critics) to say anything about a company. Yet, many organizations persist in the old command-and-control methods of the past. Just as bad, many organizations ignore what appears about their company on blogs, forums and social-media sites.

Okay, let’s be honest. Marketers and executives aren’t really scared of social media. They are scared of the unknown. People are comfortable doing the same old rubbish every year. They spend tons of money at tradeshows. They spam their customers with inane email “campaigns” that include “offers” such as free shipping or discount pricing. They invest in television commercials and Yellow Pages ads. They pay PR agencies the big bucks for a mention on page 60 of a local newspaper, for a laundry-list inclusion in an analyst’s report or for a quote in the tenth paragraph of a story in a trade magazine that nobody reads. Then they cry, “Woo hoo!,” celebrating that they scored press “hits.”

Think about the last few products you purchased. Did you answer a direct-mail ad? Go to a tradeshow to learn more? Turn to the Yellow Pages? If you’re like most people , you didn’t do any of those things – you went online. So why are we marketing in the same old ways?

What works online is creating our own content – content that people want to share. And we should be encouraging our employees, customers and other interested stakeholders to tell our stories and spread our ideas. We should be celebrating blogs, forums and the tools of social media, not clamping down on them.

And let’s continue to be honest: we must admit that we no longer control the sales process. We can depend on million-dollar direct-mail campaigns that target top sales prospects, big-budget advertisements that cast too wide a net and message-driven PR campaigns directed at media insiders whose audience is shrinking by the day. Or we can try something that might actually work.