For the past three years, my colleagues and I in the Johnson & Johnson corporate communication group have been taking steps to get the company more involved with the social web.

Starting with the launch of Margaret Gurowitz’s history blog, Kilmer House, we have been steadily adding new ways to reach and engage with people online who are interested in our company by using different social media platforms. Today, in addition to Kilmer House, we have a corporate blog, JNJBTW, the Johnson & Johnson health channel (launched by Rob Halper) on YouTube, a Facebook page and a corporate Twitter account. Taken together, these give us a presence and a voice in some of the livelier neighborhoods where people now live online.

It hasn’t been easy, and there certainly have been some stumbles along the way. As a company that sells not only consumer products, but also prescription medicines and medical devices, there were numerous legal and regulatory hurdles that needed to be taken into account. But we realized early on that it is only by jumping in that you can learn— and we are learning every day.

So what are some lessons? Understand your audience: Listen to the conversation. No two online communities are exactly the same, and to determine the best way to join in, the first step is to understand what is being discussed, who are the key influencers, what they are looking for and how they are interacting with each other.

Start small: Start with activities that may be low-risk but that can provide some valuable experiences. Margaret’s history blog not only provided us with a road map for future activities, but also gave us a better sense of the real risks involved.

Work with legal: By working closely with legal and regulatory teams we became better acquainted with their concerns. Armed with this knowledge, we took steps to mitigate those risks and by doing so gained advocates who have helped pave the way for other, more complex projects.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind before starting any initiative is that the real value of these activities is in the relationships that are formed with others.

Social media projects, therefore, shouldn’t be one-off initiatives or campaigns, but should instead represent the beginning of something longer term and more substantial, where both parties can benefit.

Marc Monseau is director, media relations, Johnson & Johnson