We've said it before and we'll say it again: Companies are control freaks, which is why they are largely uncomfortable with blogs and online forums that put control pretty much directly into the hands of users.
As a recent so-called "Internet riot" at digg.com proved, you can't always get your users to make nice -- with each other or with your company. And unlike your own employees, you can't create communications policies for them.
Still, many folks are saying that companies that don't make any effort to engage their customers in such open dialogues risk being overtaken by companies that do so. Ignoring them, or even worse patronizing them, will only make users unhappy and maybe even inclined to take their business elsewhere.
The answer may be finding the right folks to interact with online users. It seems to be working well for Continental Airlines, which employs a marketing director named Scott O'Leary to trawl Web sites for customer complaints about Continental and make them right.
As detailed in a recent Washington Post article, O'Leary -- who not only frequents online forums like Flyertalk but takes the interaction even further by visiting with some customers in person at gatherings around the country -- has become something of a hero to many customers who post on the forums.