The new gathering places—the water coolers, street corners, and picket fences—of our time are on the Web. Conversations that can influence how the public knows about and evaluates your products and services are taking place in blogs, on FaceBook and through Twitter. Are you there to hear what’s being said? Are you there to engage with current and potential customers in the places they show up to exchange information, seek answers, and make recommendations?

Yes, it’s still all about location, location, location; about being in the right place at the right time with the right people.

The good news is that the gateway to these gathering places is as close as your desktop, netbook or smart phone. No lost travel time or entertainment expenses. Just a growing network of people who would love to meet and talk with you if you were there with something valuable to share. And who would tell others about you if they liked what they they’ve heard (oops, or if they didn’t like what they’ve heard—don’t you really need to know that as well!)

Social media is all about the conversation and being wherever the conversation is taking place. And, wonder of wonders, even while you can only be in one place at a time, what you say leaves a trail throughout the online communications ecosystem, enabling others to find you from the frontiers of a complex network, through a mindboggling sequence of connections and interconnections you could never have anticipated ahead of time. Plant a seed through Twitter, expand a relationship through email, and harvest a new sale or client without having to directly plan for or connect all the lines in between.

That’s the good news. Of course, there’s always a catch, a “gotcha” when you least expect it. The culture of communications is changing, rapidly evolving in multiple, unexpected ways, becoming more immediate, more global, more transparent, more personal. Trust and mutual benefit are the coins of the realm. Patterns of influence are replacing command and control. And everything leaves a trail, adding to a publicly searchable record that is growing exponentially around the clock. Brace yourself for a different experience of “culture shock.”

Now, you can just show up with whoever else happens to show up at any given time and hope for the best. Or you can find local guides to help you navigate through an increasingly sophisticated and dynamic ecology of complex expectations, etiquette, and background chatter. For example, Twitter, the technically simplest and perhaps most powerful of the new tools can also at times be the most bewildering. Without knowing what happened, you could spend hours developing a huge network—of all the wrong people.

So welcome to a wide open frontier, an infinitely extensible land rush with more than enough room for all, and certainly plenty of space for you. Be sure, however, to think through where you want to be, what you have to say, who you want to reach, and perhaps most importantly, how you can be found by potential customers, partners and stakeholders you may never meet face-to-face but who may recognize you as exactly the solution they’ve been seeking.

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Ken Gillgren is our guest blog author this month. He is founder of Gillgren Communication Services. Gillgren Communication Services, Inc. seeks to unlock the power of new media and social technologies to serve the resurgence of community in all its forms. We provide practical guidance in the strategic use of online systems and tools, including software installation, configuration and usage, in the context of a comprehensive, community-oriented communications ecosystem.