This site isn’t just going to be about pretty people talking about pretty things, you know. We actually do hope to generate some intelligent discussion on issues that are important to marketers and consumers alike. To get that discussion going we’re going to do occasional roundtables about relevant topics, having our contributors chime in with their thoughts.

This first piece won’t be quite as roundtabley as we’d like, since we’re still ironing out the process, but hopefully you’ll find some interesting thoughts in here anyway. Without further stalling, here’s the question posed, then hit the jump to hear the responses from luminaries Scott Steinberg, Sean Hollister, Douglass Perry and Rob Fleischer:

In your experience, how has the emergence and growth of social media and social networking affected or changed the way companies interact with their customers?

Scott Steinberg:

Simple – it’s changed the entire flow of conversation. Dialogue used to be a one-way street: Now the consumer’s become a critical part of an ongoing narrative. Moreover, it’s forced companies to abandon previous launch strategies, which oftentimes amounted to little more than “fire and forget.”

Control of the message and medium still remain in some part of the hands of the originator, at least at the outset. But thanks to social media and information’s unfettered ability to spread at a dizzying rate, in a flash, it’s possible to lose one’s grip on it. As such, marketing and PR have become much more of a service-oriented practice, and one that requires constant vigilance to stay on top of. Social media, social networking and consumers themselves have made it mandatory for communications professionals to tear down the wall separating them from end-users, be more transparent, and take an active role in any given exchange. It’s a beautiful thing too, as it’s high time everyone finally started putting themselves in the public’s shoes for once, began truly walking the walk and (gasp!) actually stood behind their product.

These days, any given product, service or brand has a lifecycle which literally evolves by the second – so too must the message and approach change and adapt in real-time to meet the needs and concerns of end-users. As such, the days of spin and thought control are quickly dwindling. Modern marketing and public relations professionals are quickly being forced to become more honest, open and forthright with the general public, and realize that relationship building and trust are paramount.

Sean Hollister:

On a technical level, our current social media only really do one thing worth mentioning. By providing ready-made online services, they allow companies to cheaply and easily disseminate information direct to their most interested customers, and in turn, enable those customers to get information about their interests direct from the source. In a nutshell, social media eliminate the middleman — whether he be journalist, advertiser or marketer — for any who decide to opt in.

But social media’s greatest strength is not in creating a more direct channel for information. Where social media have truly excelled — and where they hold the most promise — is in changing social norms about how, and what sorts of information can flow.

It is an established idea that a reputable company must maintain an unblemished public face; for this and other reasons, they maintain PR staff, build heavily monitored information channels, and distribute carefully worded press releases.

Problem is, real people don’t have unblemished faces. Customers don’t always appreciate corporate-speak and sweeping policy.

Now, social media have offered an intriguing way around the issue. Treat customers as individuals, yes, but also let those customers know your company as individuals, too. (Know @evolvetom, the Diesel-jeans-wearing, soccer-loving, sometimes-body-building kickboxer, not just Tom Ohle, VP of PR and Marketing at CD Projekt RED.)

Then, let those individuals say genuine things about your company and its products that you won’t find on the press release – things that will keep your enthusiasts coming back for more. Funnel them into forums and message boards, another form of social media, where they can share their enthusiasm with the like-minded. Build them into an evangelist community that gets perks and information straight from the source.

That is the formula that social media has begun to afford a number of companies in the game space. But most of what I’ve described is not a result of the simple existence of places like Facebook and Twitter – you can still post a link to a dull press release right in your Tweet – it’s of a mentality that there are such places where the connected elite can go to become part of “the club.”

As these new social media become discovered by the Oprah-watching populace at large, I think it will be a challenge to keep that magic alive, but those who get it right will have a far better reputation with their customers.

Rob Fleischer:

In the past 2 years alone I’ve probably seen social media/networking change company’s plans 3 or 4 times. Everyone wanted to be big on MySpace, then it was Facebook, then it was their own community blogs, then twitter. Being viral is the biggest directive I’ve heard. But how do you orchestrate that? Sure you can build an army of interns or programs to build the click count, but is that really making an impression? Either your viral or you’re not. You’ll know after just a week or two. You can’t force yourself on the masses. They can smell marketing from a mile away so the debate has really come down to how subtle can/should you be or do you just go out there and hit them over the head and try to be up front with a message.

From strictly a numbers standpoint, the new networking sites and options for gamers in general have made it a lot easier to talk to them directly, but the trick is to keep that interaction engaging for the long run. I don’t know many people who are still keeping up with their MySpace pages. Facebook and Twitter seem to still be growing and some of the recent contests with pictures and ideas and giveaways seem to have gotten a little bit of traction which is great. But getting out in front of these technologies is tricky so it’s been more about maximizing them in interesting ways.

Douglass Perry:

The emergence of social media is both a thrill and a frustration. It’s refreshing and rule-breaking and riddled with ADD-infused mini-mini thoughts. While folks might use MySpace or Friendster, I have found myself coupled to my computer screen using Facebook, as I re-acquaint myself with friends from high school and college. And wonder why my wife makes comments night after night like, “Facebook, again?”

I can’t speak from the PR in any official capacity, but as a freelance journalist and consultant, using Facebook is a super focused means to send out a story, get a quick response, or say hello to the folks I know in the game industry. I try to post only a few, select stories on Facebook so as not to spam anyone, and I recommend that same practice to others. (I’m still working out how much is the right amount, mind you.) But I enjoy and pay attention to invites to out-of-the-ordinary PR events and follow group updates. If a PR event wasn’t on Facebook, I wouldn’t think that a PR coordinator or event planner was missing out, but it’s another useful tool in the toolbox. It can be used to cast a wide net that might draw a broader audience than a traditional tight-knit game group, depending on who you make friends with, or it be an alternative to setting up a blog.

The emergence of social media means there are newer, more tech-savvy, and fun ways to connect, but newer doesn’t always mean better. When it comes down to it, making phone calls and seeing people in person is more far more valuable and a greater experience than chatting on Twitter or checking messages on blogs and boards. But when you want to connect to people who live across the globe, re-connect with old friends, or target a fast, connected slice of your targeted pie, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are quick, convenient, and an efficient use of time.

Tune in later this week for more illuminating thoughts from other contributors, and let us know what you think by commenting!

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