On the speaking circuit, the most frequent question I get asked is around the ROI of social media use in marketing and communications. Often, ROI questions arise because marketers—who have spent their careers measuring the success of traditional efforts such as direct mail campaigns, trade show exhibits, and PR efforts—are now expected to effectively “deploy” social media.

The big leap here is that jumping into social media for marketing and communications requires that organizations lose control of their messages. When anybody can comment about what you’re up to, you no longer have power over the way you are portrayed.

The idea of customers and employees spreading “marketing messages” for an organization via blogs, chat rooms, and other social media sites such as YouTube actually scares many marketers, corporate communications people, and executives to death. For decades, companies have focused on controlling their messaging. This typically means not saying much—with the exception of a handful of authorized and highly trained spokespeople such as the public relations director and the CEO. Companies have used one-way communications, mostly advertising and press releases, to issue formal announcements and generally forbidden rank-and-file employees from saying anything at all.

It seems that in reality, marketing professionals and executives aren’t really scared of social media, or even the idea of a World Wide Rave. They fear the unknown. People are comfortable doing the same old rubbish year in and year out. They spend tons of money at trade shows. They spam customers with inane email “campaigns” that typically include “offers” such as free shipping or some sort of discount pricing. They invest in television commercials and Yellow Pages ads. They pay PR agencies big bucks to get a mention on page 60 of a local newspaper, a laundry-list inclusion in an analyst’s report, or a quote in the 10th paragraph of a story in a trade magazine that almost nobody reads. Then they say, “Woo hoo!” celebrating that they scored press “hits.”

In an environment where many organizations fear social media, consider the bold move made by the New York Islanders professional ice hockey team. The Islanders created what they call the “Blog Box,” providing press credentials for bloggers to attend games. Bloggers receive a set of game notes just like those provided to regular beat reporters and broadcasters from newspapers and TV. The bloggers have a special section to sit in for the games, have access to team practices, and have opportunities to interview players and coaches after the games.

The Islanders Blog Box rules are simple: “The NYI Blog Box will be your open forum. From start to finish, you’ll be in control. All we ask is for the chosen bloggers to act respectfully in the restricted media areas and keep all critiques in good taste.”

The blog box program was started at the beginning of the 2007–2008 season and may well have been a first for a major professional sports team. The program continues with the upcoming season. About a dozen bloggers were chosen for the credentials last season, and the team links to their blogs from its site.

Contrast what the Islanders have done to the vast majority of organizations. Most communicators are too worried about bloggers to do anything productive. Executives frequently ask me: “What if a blogger posts something negative? Or a blog reader makes a negative comment for all to see?” PR people say: “These aren’t real journalists. Why should we care about a bunch of geeks?”

Guess what? Bloggers such as Frank Trovato are posting away about the New York Islanders. In fact, whether you like it or not, bloggers are likely already talking about your organization. Why not cultivate a relationship?

Trovato says, “My goals for this blog are to voice not only my opinions, but the opinions of so many Islander fans that never get the chance to get their opinions heard because of the lack of forums available to us in the media. … The Islanders organization continue[s] to provide the fans the opportunity to speak out and be vocal and no matter what our opinions are seem to really listen and care what we think.”

What can your organization do to work with bloggers (and podcasters or vodcasters too)? Can you provide access to your organization like the Islanders have? Can you include bloggers in your press conferences? Does it make sense to schedule interviews with your executives for bloggers? How about making bloggers part of your product beta tests? No matter how you begin to venture into the world of social media, the way to start is by losing control.