Check out this interview with Seth Godin in a great post on Josh Spear's site. A flash of Seth-iness:
"... we’re seeing a stampede by traditional marketers into ... social media. They ... have no clue at all about the role of corporations in social media. Here’s a hint: You don’t get to ask, “How can we use this to grow?” It's not yours to use. It belongs to the people who are in it, not to greedy marketers who believe they have a right to ride along. The opportunity is to have a tribe, a group of followers, loyal people who are connected to each other ..." [Emphasis mine]
I think Seth is pretty much right, although there's a little too much of the polemic in the actual quote. It's important to be very user-focused, and social media are certainly not something to be owned. But neither were magazines or newspapers when they first emerged in London hundreds of years ago, and PBS proves that you can have independence at the same time as sympathetic marketing.
My personal opinion is that if you set up the environment in the right way, what you're doing is creating a conversation. And enabling that conversation gives you the right to listen, talk, energize, support, and embrace the tribe [if you have a Forrester account, download this document]. Those are all action verbs. Provided that you're seeking to be a part of the conversation - and not to dominate it - you are "in it".
Avoid gimmicks, and make sure your initial set-up includes figuring out how you're going to let people know you appreciate their point of view. Human relationships are not about arguing, and nor should your social media execution be "all feed and no feedback". Sounds simple, I know, and it is.
Thought for the Day: Relationships are all about commitment and genuine sharing. Maybe your social media should start from the same perspective - who knows, you could just end up meeting your perfect customer "partners".
P.S. I've had some e-mails asking me just how to execute on some of the high-level ideas I've been rattling on about! Good point - look for an occasional series starting soon about setting up for your own social media adventure.