By Sherrilynne Starkie

In today’s world, people are not easily influenced. In some cases they will trust third parties — the media, analysts, non-profit organisations and other opinion leaders — to educate them about the best products, services and opportunities. Against this backdrop, organisations that strive to intelligently influence stakeholders’ personal circles of trust are the ones which will succeed.

The key is to harness the enthusiasm, energy and ideas of the ’empowered individual’. The Internet has given each one of us a new channel of self-expression and an easy way to gather information and opinion. This has fundamentally changed organisational communications forever. Successful business leaders recognise that they must surrender some of the control by giving their customers, partners and employees a greater say in the way that their organisations operate. Embracing the community is actually the most effective way forward.

You have to recognise that digital technology is blurring the distinctions between communications channels and audiences. Effective communications are becoming more holistic and bridge marketing, public relations and social media.

According to Wikipedia, social media depend on interactions between people as the discussion and integration of words build shared-meaning, using Internet technology as a conduit.

Facebook, YouTube, Wikispaces, blogs are few high profile social media sites. But many companies fail to recognise how these sites are relevant to them or their markets. One manufacturing company has learned its lesson:

“These conversations (among customers) are going to occur whether you like it or not, OK? Well, do you want to be part of that or not? My argument is you absolutely do. You can learn from that. You can improve your reaction time. And you can be a better company by listening and being involved in that conversation,” explains Michael Dell, founder of the computer manufacturer, in an interview with BusinessWeek.

Unfortunately, he came to this view only after a customer used a blog to take Dell to hell and back. The customer was Jeff Jarvis, an experienced journalist and editor. It was his personal blog that almost single-handedly brought the Dell corporation to its knees in 2005. He was having trouble with his Dell computer and complaints fell on deaf ears. His customer service experience was terrible and he wrote about it on his blog. Soon his rants attracted comments and links from thousands of other dissatisfied Dell customers.

This community then created their own website, www.ihatedell.net, where they complained about both products and service. They also exchanged tips and information to help each other out with their Dell challenges. The company itself did nothing. (It turns out that some Dell employees decided on their own volition to take part, providing technical help to community participants, but this was done without Dell’s knowledge.)

Journalists, business partners, families of employees and customers all visited the site. This was more than just very bad PR.

Jeff Jarvis explains in an open letter to Michael Dell: “Today, when you lose a customer, you don’t lose just that customer, you risk losing that customer’s friends. And thanks to the Internet and blogs and consumer rate-and-review services, your customers have lots and lots of friends all around the world…. The pay attention part: Lots of people are making the assumption that ‘average people’ or ‘the masses’ don’t really see/read blogs, so: We take a little heat and move on. Big mistake.”

With their share price in the toilet, largely down to the community that started with Jeff Jarvis, Dell finally decided to listen. And now they put social media at the centre of all their communications.

There are 4,000 unique conversations relating to the Dell brand taking place online each and every day. Dell has established a ‘SWAT team’ to identify where they are taking place, prioritise them and engage when they feel their participation would make a positive difference.

Dell’s Head Of Corporate Marketing, Andy Lark, says: “The social media stuff is probably the most important thing we do today, from a marketing stand point. The other elements of the marketing mix have become more and more transactional and more tactical in nature. Social media stuff is much more strategic… Use social media to power the fundamentals of the business. That’s what we’re focused on.”

The continuing challenge for Dell and every other organisation is to maintain increasingly intimate relationships with empowered individuals. Success can no longer be based on a couple of individuals coming up with ideas, it’s about tapping the inspiration of the whole community and figuring out how to harness it.