Social Networks in Business

Last week I heard on the radio that The Sunday Business Post Computers in Business magazine was doing a special ‘Social Networking in Business’ edition. Since I’m more of an online news hound, I can’t remember the last time I bought a physical newspaper, I put a reminder on my phone to pickup a copy of SBP on Sunday May 4th. Which I did. It’s a rarity these days, but Sunday was not too bad weather-wise, so I sat down in a local park to enjoy Computers in Business and the sunshine.

The three Social Networking sites focussed on where Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Adrian Weckler‘s article about Twitter was a nice step by step guide to getting started, but lacked a business case for using Twitter in the first place. The other articles did at least provide some, but limited, business scenarios: Facebook for B2C advertising, LinkedIn for B2B advertising. This is perhaps an oversimplification of the articles, the online versions will not be available for a week or two. When they are I’ll link to them from this article and you can decide.

Business, and success in business, requires relationships, so Social Networking would appear to be the ideal tool. It needs to be carefully and thoughtfully applied though. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So, with Social Networking one should be aware of how and when one is using it for lead generation, building a community of loyal fans, providing customer support, or just keeping in touch. Another important factor to consider is identity. I’m not talking about credentials, but rather who is being represented, the individual or the business? This is probably not too much of a concern for small businesses where the owner’s personality is blended with the brand. While it is taboo for a politician or celebrity to delegate their Tweeting to someone else, a large organisation is infact separate from the people who run it, so the Social Networking responsibilities often fall to the marketing department by default. However, the marketing department is not the only point of contact that customers, or potential customers, have with a business. A business using Social Networking sites should reflect that, ensuring that at least Sales and Customer Support have an involvement.

Staying on the topic of Twitter and business, Sarah Milstein recently spoke about Effective Twitter for Communication & Product Integration and touched on this matter of having individuals, recognised as real people, tasked with representing the business in social networks. Sarah often refers to two different companies with a similar approach to engage with their customers through Twitter. Wesabe, a personal finance site, and Comcast, a TV, phone and internet company, both use Twitter’s search feature to learn about what peopple are saying about them and respond accordingly. Sometimes this can be to address a complaint, or provide advice on a purchase.

If a business is made up of individuals, how does that business get meaningfully represented in a social network? One option, and I’m surprised it was not mentioned in the Computers in Business magazine is CoTweet. It is designed for businesses using Twitter to engage existing customers and attract new ones. CoTweet allows multiple people to communicate through corporate Twitter accounts and stay in sync while doing so.

Of course, microblogging is not just for external communication either. Increasingly, social networks have been appearing within the enterprise too. Yammer and Present.ly both provide private microblogging with features tailored for the workplace, like the ability to add attachments and to communicate in subgroups. Those who have found it useful report that email traffic is down, but information sharing and collaboration is up. Those who didn’t find it useful are still wondering what the fuss is about. It’s just another stream of information one has to struggle keep up with.

The use of social networks in the enterprise for internal or external communication does need to be carefully considered. In particular, one needs to be aware of what existing communication processes are being supported, and what new communication processes are required. This is where the adoption of social networks for business can struggle, not recognising the opportunity to use the technology to support new ways of doing business.

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