So Hurricane Irene has come and gone, and for most people on the West Coast it had little or no effect on their lives – which is a good thing. For me personally, all my family, and many of my friends, live somewhere on the East Coast, so Irene consumed a good deal of my thoughts over the past weekend. I tuned to many news stations, but they were consumed with covering what was thankfully a non-event in New York City, and pretty much ignored real-time coverage of Irene’s doings in Western Massachusetts, inland New Jersey, Maine and Vermont.

Enter social media

There’s no better place to get news coverage than from the people themselves, and so for me Twitter and Facebook became a real-time news network of my friends and family. I learned my sister and her family were without power for almost two days, but they were okay (save for some warming beer and wine), that my niece in upstate New York was okay despite some damage in nearby towns. I also learned that some friends in Vermont were okay despite being trapped by downed bridges and power lines.

The real-time nature of social media is a powerful thing for newsworthy items and it’s often where many people learn of “breaking news” and other goings-on. With the transparent nature of social media and the ability to hide behind a smartphone or keyboard, it’s also a media channel that cannot be ignored by brands who fail to see the ROI in social media marketing and thus decide it’s not for them. It is!

Whether you establish a Facebook or Twitter account or not, you’d better be tuned to social media. Just as I learned that my friends and family were without power, I also learned of poor customer service at a power company, the relative incompetence of the local weatherman, and the power of a leading chain saw brand.

All of these brand mentions are opportunities for companies to respond – whether to ensure its customers that help is on the way, to react to negative press, and to thank them for nice comments. Social media is not going away and it (or at least listening) needs to be part of your marketing mix. People are talking about your company and brand online I can assure you. The question is… what are you doing about it?