One of the biggest challenges to getting clients to buy and run with social media ideas is that they're afraid of giving up control of their brand. That's just the nature of the media these days. Social=everyone has a voice=loss of control.
Even allowing people to post comments on the brand website makes some marketers queasy. "What if they post something bad?" "What if they say our customer service sucks?" The answer to these questions is "Awesome!" You need to know if people think your new lime-flavored beer tastes like crap. You need to know if your customer service is making people never want to deal with your company again. By allowing them to give you direct feedback, you're circumventing the lengthier process and lost time of watching sales drop, doing surveys to figure out why, then trying to fix it. Conversations are a good thing.
Alex Wipperfurth, in Brand Hijack, talks about how marketers will need to learn to give up control of their brands. Giving a group of people you don't know ownership of and the ability to shape your brand--I can see where that might be scary. But if those people love your brand, then you're giving them something they'll take good care of. You're building a genuine relationship and a strong community.
But this can also go very wrong if it's not well thought out. A few years ago, Chevy allowed users of its website to edit existing Chevy footage, add supers, and create their own commercial for the new Chevy Tahoe. Then those users could post it on Chevy's site. A lot of users did this, making spots that extolled the Tahoe. But others, as you'd expect, wrote ads with lines like: "$70 to fill up the tank, which will last less than 400 miles. Chevy Tahoe." To their credit, maybe, G.M. didn't yank any of the critical ads.
In perhaps the latest social media idea gone wrong, Skittles encouraged people to twitter about their product. They then searched twitter for any mention of skittles and automatically posted those tweets to skittles.com. What happened? Again, pretty much what you'd expect. It was like allowing people to text messages, unfiltered, to the jumbotron at the ballpark.
Skittles could have avoided this by filtering out the negative messages. That was the approach Nike took when one customer tried to customize their Nike iD's with the word "SWEATSHOP." It's a little hypocritical, encouraging freedom of expression as long as it doesn't criticize the brand. But Nike, probably rightly so, decided that was better than having some guy walking around with a Nike-hater message on his kicks.
The big question here might seem to be how to let the lovers in and keep the haters out without seeming like a nightclub with a big douchey bouncer at the door. But I would argue it's not about better filters. It's about better brands. Brands that people love, that support their communities and genuinely listen to them, those brands will build such a fan base that the cheers will drown out the smart-asses. And those brands have nothing to be afraid of.