When we address social media with our clients for the first time, this message always bubbles to the top: “your customers are participating even if you’re not.”  It’s a sort of rallying cry or call to action for many marketers.  It’s not just that they want to squelch the negative commentary, either.  Many marketers are looking for constructive feedback and making sincere attempts to build customer loyalty.

Where does China fit into all this?  As you’ve likely heard by now, this week the country blocked Twitter, Hotmail and Flickr among other social networking sites in an attempt to prevent activists from digitally re-opening the 20-year old Tienanmen Square massacre wound.

China, please see the note above.  “Your citizens are participating even if you’re not.”  In fact, Tienanmen Square remarks are already popping up on FriendFeed, a site the Chinese authorities apparently overlooked in their mass-silencing efforts. 

For marketers, the lesson here is that your customers are often where you least expect them to be.  Furthermore, if they’re passionate about your brand, (like the spirited protesters) they will find a way to broadcast their message – positive or negative.  You can not afford to ignore the uprising, strictly regulate your employees’ social media activities or censor the groundswell around your brand.  Instead, you should seek out your most vocal customers, listen carefully and engage accordingly

A marketer ignoring their customers online is surely different from extreme Internet censorship, but companies that choose this path are essentially making the same mistake as the People’s Republic.  And there isn’t a marketer out there that would want this China-sized media storm on their hands.

– Contributed by Gretchen Bender.  Follow her @gbender26

Did you know: China maintains and Internet police force of more than 30,000 (Wikipedia)?