Talk is cheap. If you’re running a business, though, the impact of that talk can be quite expensive. People will talk about you, whether good or bad, and such word of mouth can be much more influential than any advertising message you try to get across.

However, social media has changed the game. When people talk about your business now, the conversation is not limited to a couple of friends at a particular time and place. The Internet allows people to broadcast their thoughts to the world, in a searchable, written form that can sometimes remain visible for years. And though that clearly gives the customer more power, it also means that you can now know what’s being said about your business. You have much more control over word of mouth--as long as you have a social media strategy that enables you to join the conversation.

Your social media strategy should provide a plan for monitoring what’s said about your company online, responding to such comments, and proactively engaging in the conversation.

Monitoring the Conversation

Your first hurdle is to simply know what people are saying about your company. There may be negative or misleading comments out there, right now, for the world to see--and yet the actual target of those comments may never see them.

Monitoring your online presence is relatively simple on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. You can normally change your settings on such sites so that you’re automatically notified when anyone comments on your page or mentions you in a tweet. On some sites, including most blogs, you can adjust the settings so that comments are not even visible to the public until you approve them.

The bigger challenge to your social media strategy, is figuring out how to monitor comments on the rest of the web. For instance, there are many online review sites that you might not think of as social media channels, but are reader-written in much the same way. You cannot spend all of your time scouring the web, but identify the main sites where your company is listed and check them for updates regularly. You can also use Google Alerts to notify you when new online content mentions your name.

Responding to Comments

In political campaigns, you rarely ever hear a critical comment by one candidate go unanswered by the opposition. That’s because, in the court of public opinion, failing to respond to an accusation is generally seen as an admission that the accusation is true.

The same applies in social-media strategy. If someone complains about your business, it’s essential that you respond.

The way that you respond is just as important. If you respond defensively, or in anger, you can actually make the situation worse. If your response shows that you care about your customers, and are willing to do what it takes to make things right, you can turn a negative review into a net positive for your business.

Whatever you do, don't get dragged into an argument in an online public forum. Such conflict is better handled in person, through a phone call or private email.

Initiating the Conversation

Of course, your social media strategy should not be focused on merely reacting to others. Social media is social, and your online fans or followers want to converse with you. An active social media presence gives your company a public face and personality they can relate to, causing them to "like" you even more. A strong social media presence also gives people something to find when they are searching for your products or services online.

Ways that you can proactively join the social media conversation include:

• Blogging. This is the best forum if you have anything longer than two sentences to say. You are an expert at what you do every day, and blogging allows you to demonstrate that expertise and establish credibility with potential customers.

• Posting photos or video. Images are simply more interesting, and draw more attention online, especially if the employees or customers involved are "tagged."

• Community involvement. People like to do business with their friends and neighbors. And you probably are already involved in your community; social media simply allows you to make that involvement more visible. So post a photo of that little league team you sponsor, congratulate the graduating high school seniors, or help promote local events and charities through your social media channels.

• Conversation starters. Short, simple posts--especially questions--are the best way to get people to type a response. Responses improve your visibility, and allow you to truly converse with people online.

With the right social media strategy, you can get your company's followers and friends talking--and give them something to talk about.

Chris Vaughn is the Content Marketing Director for DigitalSherpa, the world's largest content marketing provider for small businesses. With the recent acquisition of SocialTract, DigitalSherpa is thrilled to welcome the HVAC community in to our client family. Learn more about content marketing and check out our free e-books and whitepapers at http://digitalsherpa.com. Connect with Chris and the DigitalSherpa team on Facebook and Twitter or e-mail Chris directly at cvaughn@digitalsherpa.com.