In the past, companies spent millions of dollars on expensive marketing campaigns to try to tell customers what to think. If they were happy, they wouldn't tell anyone. If they were unhappy, they'd tell five to 10 people, and maybe write a nasty letter to the CEO--a letter that almost always went unanswered. Now, with the speed of the Web and the immediacy of social media, customers can spread the word about your business in seconds.

That’s good and bad.

The Good

Let’s say you have a retail location and one of your brand loyalists, “checks in” on Facebook Places, or Foursquare, both location-based tools that link to a person’s online network of family and friends. Now, your customer’s 500 friends are exposed to your store, some for the first time. Suddenly you have new customers because one loyal customer checked in.

But what if your organization doesn’t have a retail location? What if you build your business through word-of-mouth and referrals and not from foot traffic or in-store sales?

It’s a little more difficult to use social networks to build awareness in this case, because people can’t ‘check in’ when they visit. Customers can, however, tell their friends and family about you through the same social networks, and you can encourage it.

Perhaps you’re at a trade show, and you want people to tweet about the new product they just saw in your booth. Encourage them to tweet about it, using your Twitter handle or a hashtag that defines your business. They can become your advocates, and they even stick up for you when you make a mistake.

The Bad

In early 2009, Skittles took a risk. Instead of the usual “me, me, me” copy on the brand’s home page, it featured their corporate Twitter stream, their YouTube and Flickr channels, and their Facebook fan page prominently on their home page.

The first day they had so many hits to their home page it took down Twitter and its servers. And then, just two days after its launch, the marketing team had to rethink its strategy when users deluged the site with inane and profanity-riddled tweets. It became a game, in fact, to see how ridiculous a user could be with their social posts, and still end up on the Skittles home page.

Skittles’s idea failed, only succeeding in educating the world of the importance of controlling brand images.

While you can help motivate your customers to talk about you in a good way, ultimately they are the ones who control the message. Yes, the things your employees and you are saying about the brand should be consistent. But you also have to be open to listening to how your customers describe your organization, your products, or your services. If they perceive it differently than you do, it’s time to rethink your messaging and your brand positioning.