It is viewed with relish and contempt in equal measure, but ultimately social media is simply another new technology that business is slowly learning to understand.
There are enough successful examples to know it's worth considering - and enough doom-mongering platitudes around to know ignoring it is probably not the best track to take at this stage.
This week's Media140 conference showcased some companies that are doing interesting things with the technology - even some whose entire business model is starting to rely on it.
Here are some do's, don'ts and some good ideas gleaned from the speakers.
How to crowdsource
At Media140, the talk centred on sourcing ideas for advertising campaigns, but the opportunities are endless.
Crowdsourcing simply means asking people that you might not otherwise be able to reach for opinions, ideas, or help through some form of social media. It has possible internal applications for asking an entire, geographically dispersed company something.
It gives employees the opportunity to give their opinion on something they might not otherwise get the chance to. And externally, it could provide crucial information on what customers think of you - if you target and approach them correctly and in a "human" way.
The challenges could involve issues around intellectual property. If you are asking for ideas that are actually worth money, doing it such a public way could backfire. And once the exercise is up and running, there will almost certainly be issues around managing the information or ideas you receive.
A recent crowdsourcing exercise for a marketing campaign for Unilever got 1,200 decent responses - it's then someone's job to pick the best.
Social media is certainly low in financial cost, but you must be aware of the time costs, which can be relatively high if you are really going to do it well. Plus, you have got to make sure you think carefully about whether this technology is going to work for a particular task or brief.
Crowdsourcing may transform the "brainstorming" part of your project, but it won't change the fact that once you have a great idea, you are going to need the same skills and investment to put it into practice.
What kind of brief works? One example floated at Media140 was car manufacturer BMW, which wanted a customer relationship management (CRM) system for managing a database of customers that the company wants to engage with in the long term.
Just because applications of social media have so far related to marketing, advertising or sales, doesn't mean there aren't hundreds of possibilities in other parts of the business. The important thing is to keep it simple, at least at first, and be clear about what you want to do.
- Be honest. Especially about mistakes. People will see through you anyway, so don't misinform. Dell is a good example to follow here - when it got things wrong, it owned up, changed the way it did things and is now often upheld as an example of good practice.
- Only contribute when you have something to say. Don't go wading into conversations or harassing people - you wouldn't do it in the real world, so don't do it on Twitter or an internal network. Many of the rules of engaging in real-world conversation apply to online conversations.
- Target people properly. Make sure you are providing relevant information to the right people. You have to work out what will benefit the people you want to engage with.
- Don't try to be something you're not. One delegate at Media140 asked how you should approach social media if you're already hugely unpopular - a bank, perhaps, or a certain brand of politician.
- Lloyd Davis, founder of Tuttle, said there's no faking it. "You have to change who you are, not just the perception of who you are."
- Dont forget to find some way to measure your success. You need to justify what you are doing - to do this, you need to be crystal clear about what you're trying to achieve.
- Don't patronise (or try to rip off) customers or even employees. Social media provides a way for these people to talk to each other, and as such, puts a bit more power in their hands.
- Don't expect overnight success, unless you happen to be Oprah Winfrey. It takes time to build up trust, and it has to be done subtly.
- Don't undervalue the skills it takes to get this right, or the benefits the company could achieve from getting it right. Some companies are hiring third parties to engage for them, but there's potentially a role for in-house skills in managing this kind of engagement
- Don't forget that social networks weren't invented for companies - they were invented for people, and it is individuals who have flocked to and embraced them. The challenge for business is to work out where it fits.
Some companies love to control things, but if your company is one of these, it's time to relax a little. Your employees and your customers have always been able to say negative things about you - but now they can do it on the internet, and perhaps they'll have a few more people listening. There is of course a danger than employees will misrepresent your brand online, but there's a danger that they'll do this every day anyway. Word of mouth is not a new concept.
There are different ways to approach this particular challenge. Drinks company Innocent and online clothing retailer Asos.com both spoke at Media140 and outlined different approaches.
James Hart, e-commerce director at Asos.com, encourages staff to add the brand name to their usernames and talk about what they are doing at work on their Twitter or Facebook pages, instead of just talking to their friends. He said,
"We have 55 people on Twitter. I trust them and I see what they say because I follow them. We like to be where our customers are, and we adapt to the environment. I'm not really sure what to do with the official account. People search for Asos so we need something, but we dont really push products at them. I just want to talk to and learn from them."
In comparison, Ted Hunt, digital communications manager at Innocent, said his company has the one official account. Innocent isn't strict over internet communication - it doesnt delete comments on its blog, unless they have swearing in them. Negative comments stay up, and the company encourages interaction. But Hunt says it is simply easier to manage one Twitter account than lots of them.
"We keep it as a single Innocent drinks account. Otherwise it fragments too much and it is hard to control the message. It is easier to get a message out in one go. But we don't moderate strictly. In two years we have removed six comments on our blogs. Negative comments stay up. We take down swearing because children come to the website."
A company can take whichever approach feels most suitable, but the key thing to remember is that you are not going to catch everything in your net. There are plenty of companies around if you do want to monitor what's being said about a particular business, but ultimately trust is likely to get you further than draconian rules and spying.
You cannot just turn up on Twitter and tick off "social media" on the to-do list. It requires a bit of work and effort before tangible results are seen. Social media may not seem like the most important priority in a recession, but taking the time to understand it and know the basics could be a good idea.
Take Dominos Pizza, it was landed in deep PR-trouble after two employees uploaded a video onto YouTube showing them doing horrible things with people's food. It got 600,000 views and the damage to the company's reputation could have been untold. Dominos took 48 hours to respond - which was criticised at the time for being too long - but when it did, it was effective.
Its response video has now had one million views, beating the first one, but what was important was that it chose the same medium to communicate with people instead of releasing a dry press release.
If a business knows the basics, understands a bit about how this technology works, it will be in a better position to respond effectively if an employee or disgruntled customer manages to get it in trouble. Some level of commitment is required by all.
For those who really want to get it right, training employees in what's appropriate and what can work is a good first step. John Beasley, head of brand at Red Bull, which is relying increasingly on social media for its marketing, said at Media140 that long-term commitment is the only thing that will get it to work. The first thing the company did was create a presence online using MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.
He says, "But we had to develop that though and use content. We found consumers wanted short bits of content that needed to be refreshed constantly. We also created lots of different points for consumers to discover us through."
Corporate arrogance is not what people are after. If there are complaints, it is good practice to acknowledge them. And if you manage to solve the problems people talk about, you will be hailed as a hero (it might be by only one person, but that's better than none).
One example aired at Media140 was Comcast. TheUS internet service provider responded to a tweet from Techcrunch editor Michael Arrington complaining about the company, and sorted out the issues he was having. The result was free positive publicity in a blog post that went out to Arrington's three million readers.
There are several examples of companies or brands feeding any update on Twitter that mentions their name on to their website. This provides one place on the company site that comments can be listened to. There are also different tools for tracking and listening, including Delicious and Tweetmeme.