“Facebook ‘costs businesses dear’”, losing 233 million hours of productivity per month in the UK alone, according to research carried out by UK employment law firm, Peninsula. “Vodafone suspends employee after obscene Tweet”. “The day United Airlines Twitter was hijacked”.

Just a few of the headlines from recent media that make many organisations think that social networking is something to be avoided at the corporate level, and to be banned at the individual employee level. While control is definitely required, social networking offers definite opportunities to a business – and locking down an employee is increasingly difficult to do within the corporate space, and impossible once they have gone home.

So just how should an organisation look at social media?

Let’s start with a few figures. Facebook has over 500 million active accounts, with over 700 billion minutes (over 1.3m man years) of time being spent by people being active on the site per month. Twitter has passed the 200 million user mark. Foursquare has passed the 2 million user mark. 35 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Now look at the figures for your own web site – how many unique visitors have you had in the last year, never mind the last month?

The reach of social networking is phenomenal. Even with the accepted over-reporting of unique users of social networking sites (many people have more than one account), and the totally banal content of much of what is put up on the social web, the importance of being seen in the social sphere cannot be ignored.

Yet many organisations are – to mix a couple of metaphors – burying their heads in the sand and trying to act as King Canute to fight the tide of their own customers’ and prospects’, as well as their employees’ preferences.

Technical attempts are made to block access to the social sites; dictats are passed down threatening all sorts of ills on anyone found using the sites during company time, while the marketing function hides behind email and standard media-based campaigns. It may be that this results in individuals not being able to use the social sites, which has to be good, surely? They are now fully focused on doing what we pay them for – i.e. company work.

But employees go home – where they can log onto their own machines and can then try and catch up with their social streams. “Sorry I couldn’t get back to you. Company locks me down. #Fail”. Friend responds “What company is that? Sounds very old fashioned”. Employee responds “Yeah – Acme. Very old fashioned, bad place to do anything. Most people not happy”.

Well, that’s worked well for dear old Acme, hasn’t it? The employee has low morale, feels that they are missing out as they know that their friends from your biggest competitor Globalcorp are on Facebook all day. Your customer base suddenly sees that the company they are dealing with is behind the curve with what is seen as almost a necessity these days.

They also see that Globalcorp is more progressive – and probably find that Globalcorp has its own Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. They follow Globalcorp and find that they are offering special deals through these channels, and are willing to engage in direct interactions. If you were in the individual’s shoes, which company would you want to do business with?

Interacting with those that are your main focus has to be the aim – but doing it in the right way, and in a manner that makes economic sense to the organisation. I researched a while back into the use of social networking within the public sector, and had a remarkable discussion with one local government group. They did believe that the best way for them to engage with the citizens that they were responsible for was through social networking – but “obviously, they couldn’t use public systems”.

Therefore, what they wanted to do was to replicate Facebook. The thought process was that as Facebook is so successful, then the local government’s version of it would also be successful. Unfortunately, as they soon realised, the real world doesn’t work like that. For those who are spending a large part of their day in Facebook, that site is their centre of operations. A worthy site that just provides information on a single set of needs just doesn’t cut it any longer – a “private Facebook” will die before it gets anywhere.

Organisations have to accept that their role is to take the business to the prospect – not try and drag the prospect to the business. Therefore, the use of these mega sites has to be where the focus lies – not on trying to make people come to your site directly. The problem lies in doing this effectively.

Effective social media depends on what type of business you are, and how you want to be perceived out in the market. For example, a retailer may be able to pick up a lot of followers by making special offers through social network streams, giving followers better deals than those who are not tracking the business.

Specialist companies may want to have social feeds that are driven by named people who are well known within their realm of expertise. Others may want to drive followers through free gifts in exchange for information, links to other offers or whatever – it is all down to what fits with your own corporate profile.

However, when compared to a standard website, it has to be remembered that social networking is far more “of the moment”, and that an organisation has far less control over something once it has gone out. Those who are tasked with managing the social media streams must be seen as being trustworthy – this is not the place for an unhappy employee to be given a corporately endorsed voice.

They have to be tied in to what is happening within the business – whatever is promised through social networking has to be known by sales, marketing and the contact centre to maintain cohesion for the overall corporate strategy. The various streams have to be kept in synch – there is no point in advertising one offer on Twitter which is then offered in a different manner on Facebook, as the users following your organisation through both sites will only get confused.

Content filtering can be of great use here in ensuring that content of certain types does not go out either accidently or maliciously. Intellectual property can therefore be protected, but more importantly, an organisation’s brand and profile can be maintained through ensuring that racist, sexist and other offensive material, as well as intellectual property, can be blocked before it hits the public sites.

It also has to be borne in mind that social networking is a two way street. Individuals are talking about you out there – and you need to track the main sites to be able to see what the tone of the crowd is. “#Acme #Fail” seen a couple of times should be raising flags. People from your business should be getting in touch to see what the problem is – and trying to ensure that things are sorted out as rapidly as possible.

In many cases, it may be a case of an easily remedied problem – get it sorted and there’s a strong possibility that an unhappy customer suddenly starts to post positive comments about how good Acme is. If it is something which could be a good idea for the business to pick up on – say a new product, or a new function for an existing product – then give praise in the public environment to make the individual feel good, and also for the rest of the community to see how open and good Acme is as a company.

If you believe that a customer is just plain wrong – don’t say so – it will go viral and millions of people will suddenly see how you deal with those you disagree with. See if some happy medium can be reached, and if not, try and agree to disagree – in a civilised manner.

Use the social networks for crowd surfing – ask your prospects and customers what they would like to see and what they think of new ideas. Expect to be deluged in comments – and expect a lot of them to be weird and often not so wonderful. But it shows that Acme is a company that is at the forefront of dealing with customers and prospects alike, that it is willing to enter in to discussions with the people most important to it.

Make sure that you make it as easy for people to engage with you as possible. Put the corporate Twitter and Facebook handles on the web site as prominently as possible, along with your YouTube page link. Make sure that they are on the corporate email signatures. Put them on paper-based collateral that is going out and on any TV or radio adverts. You are trying to reach as many people as possible, so don’t try and hide how they can interact with you.

You are also trying to make this something that grows without massive internal investment, so aim to be viral. This may need a rethink of past marketing campaign approaches – but be careful not to go too far, too quickly. Staid old Acme suddenly wanting to get down with the kids in the ‘hood may not resonate with the target audience – quirky is OK, outright strange may not be.

Ensure that you have the means for measuring what matters. If you are using links from within social networking sites to point to your own content, track how well this is working, and learn from successes and failures. Track along the whole process – did the original social networking output drive a lot of click throughs? Did those click throughs take things any further? How many customers came as a result of this? How much money was made through it? Don’t confuse the cheapness of social networking with the need for it to provide demonstrable value to the business.

Finally, don’t forget the individual employee. There may be a need to move from a 9-to-5 work-based mentality to a fulfilment mentality. By this, I mean that if you need an employee to do 10 tasks per day, then if they can do these in 6 hours, there is no basic problem with them spending 2 hours on social networks sites. However, if they are only managing 8 tasks in the day, then even 5 minutes on social networking sites is harming their productivity. A little give and take can help drive job performance and employee morale in the right direction.

The individual also has to be aware of the possible impact of what they put into the social network systems. Posting that they have had a bad day and that they are looking forward to a sit down and a glass of wine is one thing; stating that Acme has ground them down again and that they are completely done with the company is another.

Such comments need to be included as part of an employee’s contract of employment – both sides have to agree that even outside of work hours, commenting adversely against the company can be a disciplinary offence, and that the business will be tracking what is said in the public domain about them.

For those organisations that are embracing social networking and making it an integrated part of their outreach to constituents, it is showing great return on investment. It requires thought; it requires a consistent strategy between what already exists and what social networking offers. It requires a flexible infrastructure that can embrace new forms of social networking as they come along (Anyone use Friends Reunited any longer? When was the last time you went on SecondLife? How’s activity on MySpace these days? Remember BeBo?).

Outreach to a massive possible audience is possible through social networking – it should not be feared, but the issues it presents have to be respected. As a business, grab the opportunity and use it, join the rest of us out there and see what can be done.