The rise of social media has given the general public unprecedented influence in building a brand or destroying a reputation. Blogs, social networking, online video . . . these media forums can have as much (or more) of an impact on a company or organization than an article in a newspaper or a segment on TV.

Given this new reality, it is becoming increasingly important for companies to be aware of how their business and industry are portrayed in the social media realm. On the surface, blogs, Facebook and Twitter give the appearance of being trivial, off-the-cuff forums for friends to meet and self-proclaimed pundits to prophesize. But that freewheeling, anything-goes atmosphere is what has made social media such a powerful force because for the first time--age, education or socioeconomic status notwithstanding--everybody has the opportunity to be heard and make a difference.

For the individual with a laptop or an iPhone, times couldn't be better. But for the company initiating a rebranding campaign or launching a new product, the process just became significantly more complicated. Not only must companies manage and evaluate how the traditional media portrays their business--a daunting task to begin with--but now they need to be on top of the multitude of social media sites and services where customers, investors and stakeholders exchange information and shape opinion.

Identify Social Media Gatekeepers
Success in social media communications requires two key elements: speed and action. Organizations that effectively utilize social media intelligence to either build on positive buzz about their brand or quickly respond to an emerging crisis will rise to the top, while those that ignore the influence of online voices will risk losing out on valuable opportunities and, in some cases, suffer irreparable damage.

The challenge, therefore, is weeding through all of the social media "noise" to identify and engage those individuals who are most important to your business. By narrowing the pool, you give yourself a better opportunity to understand what's being said and to become part of the conversation. But how does one assess which sources hold weight vs. those that are less important?

A basic measure of the influence of a blog or social media network is the number of inbound links from other social media sites or, in the case of Twitter and Facebook, the number of followers and fans. By that measure, the greater the links and the greater the number of followers, the greater the influence. There's something to be said for popularity.

However, mere numbers are not necessarily the best indicator of influence. For blogs, online sites such as Technorati and Alexa use a series of criteria to determine the relative strength of a blog within a specific industry and throughout the entire blogosphere. The ratings are not perfect, but they should point you in the right direction.

"Retweeting," or the number of times an individual's tweet is redistributed among the Twitterverse, is an excellent gauge of a person's influence and the interest level of what he or she is discussing. Retweets also shine a light on the more active participants. Especially on Twitter, those who are most active tend to be the most influential, and tools such as TweetGrade and TwitterScore can help give you a rough estimate of who's setting the pace of debate.

Track What's Being Said
Being familiar with the top social media voices is key to managing your online reputation, but sometimes the pebble that starts an avalanche can come from an unexpected place. As such, the ability to monitor, analyze and measure the impact of what is being said about an organization, brand, spokesperson or competitor across the entire social media landscape is a necessity.

Traditional media monitoring services will provide you with results from online media and major blogs, but comprehensive and effective monitoring of social networks requires different tools than those typically used. Services such as Google's blog search and SocialMention enable users to track any number of names and search terms. When a mention occurs, an alert is sent directly to your e-mail account. For screening blog comments--the section below the blog post where readers provide feedback--try BackType.com. If you're interested in aggregating your social media activities, Yahoo! Pipes, currently in beta, has some interesting features.

While all of these tools are effective, they are not without shortcomings. First, most of the freely available social media monitoring tools are not comprehensive enough to stand on their own. To ensure you're getting the proper coverage, it's necessary to employ multiple alerts through more than one service, because different tools will catch different things. Additionally, these technologies have a habit of generating false positives, so it may take further refining to get the system to work for your specific needs.

To get more comprehensive monitoring and measurement, paid services such as PR Newswire's Social Media Metrics enable you to build multilevel searches that scour more than 20 million blogs, 5 million forum posts and 30,000 online news sources, social networks and micro-blogs.

Gauge Sentiment
Now that you have a grasp on what's being said and by whom, the last step is determining whether those comments are nice, neutral or nasty. As noted earlier, the power of social media to build or destroy is significant. Since much of what occurs in the social media realm is opinion-driven, the ability to quickly gauge and manage perception is paramount.

In many cases, assessing sentiment can be accomplished simply by reading the various posts and threads. However, for larger brands or during a product launch, reviewing the myriad comments may not be feasible. In such instances, you'll want to subscribe to social media measurement services. These tools are able to calculate sentiment by leveraging natural language processing and machine learning algorithms. The systems can quickly assess the prevailing winds of opinion and provide an almost play-by-play account of how a company or product is being discussed.

The greatest benefit of monitoring sentiment in real time is the ability to circumvent a potential crisis. Because social media is so decentralized, initial signs of trouble often begin in small pools and, as a result, tend to be overlooked. In an instant, a seemingly innocent debate can rapidly gain venomous momentum and escalate into a full-blown crisis. Major companies such as Wal-Mart and Johnson & Johnson, with armies of communications experts and PR consultants, have been brought to their knees by social media tsunamis. Had the companies addressed the crises in their early stages, things might never have advanced beyond a few pockets of displeased individuals.

But don't be discouraged. Positive activity can also blossom quickly and create buzz that reaches well beyond a company's core audience. Again, it is valuable to ride the wave early because you can intensify the excitement by directly engaging individuals whose passions your company has ignited. The appeal of social media is akin to grassroots campaigning and, in both cases, those who are able to win hearts and minds will succeed.