In many ways, social networks are broadcast media. An update, a tweet, a post that goes to a wide audience is … marketing. Plus, it’s out of control, once sent.

“People have to realize they're speaking to a big room every time they say something,’’ said Robert Ellis, former Senior Vice President of Social Enterprise Innovation at Bank of America at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association's Financial Services Technology Leaders Forum and Expo at the Hilton New York.

Hard as it may be to believe, nine out of 10 of your customers are active on social media, said Clara Shih, CEO and founder of tools supplier Hearsay Social and author of “The Facebook Era.”

Which means any financial firm, from an investment adviser to a brokerage to a services supplier, needs to have systems in place to get a grip on what’s going on, inside and particularly outside their organizations.

Customers are already talking about you, good or bad, Ellis said. “You have to harness that or you are losing an opportunity" to respond to questions, issues and complaints. And perhaps turn enemies into customers.

The first step is to listen to what's being said and respond, both Shih and Ellis said at the forum.

But, on a day to day basis and for the long-term, what really matters is how you bring consistency and control to how your firm and all its employees interact with social networks. For that, there are systems already springing up to help you manage how communications are sent out.

The nature of communications vary by platform and context, Ellis noted. For the most part, each message can be treated just like electronic mail. A social network is just another channel.

But context is critical. If the message is just sent to one person, it’s private communication. If it’s a status update that is broadcast to all 500 million Facebook users, it’s … promotion. At least that’s the way the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority is going to look at it.

There are three types of systems emerging to help, according to Kristin Shevis, vice president of financial services at Hearsay Social:

Compliance tools: Applications that help you make copies of anything said and archive it, in case you face regulatory review. And apps that enforce company policies and make sure comments that get made get pre-approved, as necessary, before getting broadcast.

Content management: This is the heart of the day-to-day use of these networks. These are the systems that let your organization create the content that will get published, track it and put it out, where intended and when you want.

Analytics: Ultimately, you want to know what works. These measure the effectiveness of what you’re doing, whether it’s bringing in new customers, burnishing your brand, or simply getting more attention. You want to know which networks and types of content work best, in your case.

If you’re on social networks to manage what’s being said about your brand, what you’re going to find may be the biggest challenge is the “identity problem.’’

Is rob356abc on MySpace the same guy as rob467jkl on Twitter? Are either of them guys? Are either of them customers of yours?

You need a system that can over time make sense of the mess and provide a universal archive of what’s being said.

You also need a platform that allows you to screen, or pre-approve, comments and content before it goes out. Good systems let you set up flags not just for words – like “offer” or “alpha” or “absolute return” – that might be used in the wrong context, but numbers as well. You can set a system up for different lengths of numeric strings or for different formats, such as those used by Social Security numbers or bank accounts to make sure you’re not spawning messages that put you in a bind.

This can get dicey in a large organization. How do you approve or disapprove of 5,000 status updates?, Ellis asks. How do you enforce the line between professional and personal communications?

And, even after that, how do you keep track of what was said where?

Shih said, if messages are captured and treated as email, there’s a fairly simple make-do option: Have your system put the name or tag of the social network into the email’s header information, before it’s sent to the archive.

Most of the major social networks provide programming interfaces that you you pull out statistics and messages or other wise integrate your platforms with theirs.

But you need to maintain an “air gap,” Ellis contends, with your own internal systems. Don’t integrate your management of social conversation – even if it’s being done as a customer service – with your customer relationship management program. You’re asking for trouble.

Most importantly, don’t expect the systems can handle everything. The most critical component in managing social networks that is usually missing is … people.

Usually, interacting with social media is an “unfunded mandate” from somewhere inside a company, said Brian Tietje, senior account executive for financial services at LinkedIn, the professional networking site.

When he goes in to Fortune 100 companies and asks the appointed social media guru what his or her staff is like, “the response is ‘me,’ 95 percent of the time,’’ he said.

So, put enough people on the program to really manage it – and let it make an impact.

And if you use existing staff, don’t underestimate one other effort that may involve expense: Retraining, Ellis said.

Published with permission from Securities Technology Monitor.